Few of us would spend five minutes surrounded by garbage, let alone three years in one of the world’s largest landfills, Jardim Garmacho, just outside of Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro, but then we are not Vik Muniz, Brazilian artist and activist. Director Lucy Walker (“Devil’s Playground” and “Countdown to Zero”) and her team follow Muniz as he works towards an ambitious goal – transforming the lives of individuals who pick recyclable materials from garbage (also known as catadores) through art.
Viewers initially listen as Muniz and his wife, also an artist, Janaina Tschäpe, discuss his plans to leave their Brooklyn home and return to Brazil for the next two years, photographing society’s most marginalized. “What I really want to be able to do,” he said, “is to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials that they use every day.” Although she expressed reservations, it’s not long before Muniz is encased by heaps of garbage. Well known for this kind of artistic risk taking, his photo series often combine drawing with non-traditional elements such as sugar, dirt, garbage, string and diamonds.
Affable and warm, he clutches the camera and quickly begins opening up to the catadores about his purpose: creating their photographic portraits to sell, and donating the proceeds to them. Walker deftly uses the camera, introducing us to each person with grace, honoring their voice while mining the environment and offering arresting cinematography. One by one, we meet them all, charismatic, vulnerable, sad and determined; their fates linked but also separate.
They include Tiaõ Santos, the young, handsome and intelligent leader of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho, an organization he helped to found, which gives his co-workers a platform; Isis, a beautiful woman who carries the weight of sadness in her eyes and abhors the landfill, but feels powerless to escape it. Although they differ in age, Magna and Suelem, both mothers, also detest Jardim Garmacho, but take pride in resisting the easier option – prostitution. Zumbi, an intellectual, cannot understand why anyone would want to recycle a book, and instead collects them with fervent zeal so that the children of the catadores will learn. “Auntie” Irma, a trained restaurant cook, transforms leftover food from supermarket trucks into warm meals for everyone. Finally, Valter, one of the first to introduce himself to Muniz, walks with quiet dignity, assured that poverty does not define him.
After each person has their photo taken, Muniz brings them inside his studio to work as a group, surrounding their images with what others have thoughtlessly discarded – from plastic bags to bottles. He references the work of great artists before him, posing the catadores as iconic works of art such as Suelem, the 18-year-old mother, who becomes Madonna, her children nearby. Tião’s pose is reminiscent of David’s The Death of Marat. Over the course of several weeks, many of the catadores begin to see themselves differently, hope replaces despair. Still, although he wanted to help, Muniz worries that he may let them down. “People are fragile,” he remarked, in a heated discussion with his wife about the larger ramifications of the work.
Exposing this kind of ambiguity is the film’s greatest strength. Zumbi, Suelem and the others are not portrayed as mere victims. Audiences also witness Muniz struggle, quite candidly, with the enormity of what it means to assist a group of people in changing their lives and the dampening reality that for some, success may emerge differently or more slowly.
As the film comes to a close and Muniz begins to sell the work the group has created, one is left with the realization that this work has transformed not only the catadores, but Muniz – perhaps made him even more appreciative of his success and affirmed a belief in the power of rebirth. Waste Land demonstrates that empathy combined with action can impact change. Perhaps this is its greatest gift to us – embrace courage, step outside of your experience, and what you find just might transform you.