On one of many evenings I find myself twidding my thumbs waiting for sven to finish work, I watched Waste Land, a documentary I found on Hulu about a 3-year art project at a Brazilian landfill, Jardim Gramacho, apparently the largest garbage dump in the world.
The film tracked the evolution of an idea by Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz, who returns to his native country of Brazil to create portraits of destitute Brazilians who live in the favelas and work in the landfill just outside of Rio de Janeiro. Only the portraits wouldn’t be created with paint, but garbage.
The film was a little slow to start but as soon as you meet the ‘catadores,’ or ‘pickers,’ (people who earn a living by picking recyclable materials from out of the swaths of trash to resell), I was hooked in a bizarre, voyeuristic way. It was curiously captivating to watch them speak, laugh, and cry while detailing the intimate tragedies and glories of their small, mundane but courageous lives in Brazil.
In spite of all the misfortunes in their lives that relegated them to be catadores, they held onto extraordinary pride about their lives and their choices. The women were so poor they faced two options: being pickers or prostitutes, or what they call “turning tricks at the Copacabana.” They were defiant and prideful when rationalizing their choice between the two, calling their work honest and dignified. (In fact, catadores remove some 400 tons of material a day and reducing the volume of actual garbage in the landfill.)
Ultimately, the film communicated how the power of art helped this group of 7 catadores to re-envision their lives and truly embrace their pride, dignity, and self worth. He photographed each of them, projected their massive images onto the ground, and invited them to fill in the shaded areas of their faces using recyclable materials they handpicked from the trash. The results were 7 magnificent, breathtaking portraits that, when seen up close, comprise nothing more than plastic soda bottles, discarded teddy bears, tangled magnetic tape, and other junk pulled from the landfill. Together, they built themselves up using the very things that define their downtrodden status in Brazilian society.
All in all, it was an uplifting documentary and highly recommended! The artist, Vik Muniz, won me over too with his child-like wonder, earnestness, and sincere desire to learn more about art and about humanity. One hundred percent of the proceeds from the project were donated to support the movement of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho. Not surprisingly, the film won a slew of awards, including the 2011 Sundance Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary and a 2011 Oscar nomination for best documentary feature.