Tumultuous trash turns to treasure in Waste Land

By Jess Scanlon

Artist Vik Muniz stands before the Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro as garbage pickers scrounge for any and all salvageable and helpful items.



A successful modern artist and the world’s largest garbage dump make an unlikely combination for a documentary, particularly one that has won multiple high profile awards. Yet, this is the theme of the latest film in the Green Film Series, Waste Land, hosted by the Energy and Sustainability Steering Committee.

Presented to a modest crowd of around 30 viewers on Tuesday night in the Sweigart Hall auditorium, the bilingual documentary opened with its protagonist on a talk show discussing his work.

The plot is relatively simple. Vik Muniz, a Brooklyn-based artist, returns to his native Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to create art from the Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill. There he meets the people who work as garbage pickers, collecting the recyclable materials in order to survive. They are working in poor conditions and living in the adjacent favela, or slum.

As the story continues, it becomes obvious why the film holds a 100 percent rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes, a website that collects reviews from both critics and users. Its power becomes evident as the documentary proceeds.

Muniz begins to spend more time with the pickers, learning more about them and their stories. Tiaõ is a young man attempting to introduce a better quality of living to his fellow pickers through unionizing and social action. Zumbi is trying to put together a community library with the books he finds in the landfill.  Suelem has been working at the dump since she was seven years old and is trying to support her family. Despite their hardships, all hope to improve their lot in life.

Inspired by their stories, Muniz takes photo portraits of them that form the basis for massive collages that are then photographed and made into prints later.  Some of the pickers work in the studio, assisting him with the project. Muniz offers all of the profits to the pickers. However, the art is a dramatic change for him, making it a financial risk and clearly setting up the moment when a portrait of Tiaõ is up for auction in London. The stirring tension is amazing. The art is later displayed in the Museum of Modern Art in São Paulo.

The film’s music stood out because few documentaries start out in such a bombastic style. It worked for this film because it was unexpectedly musical from the opening to the rhythmic protests of the garbage pickers.

The human-interest element is the strongest in the story. Muniz speaks about it early in the story, yet the environmentalism element remains a background issue. Despite a few comments about consumption from the pickers and the use of recycled materials for all the art produced, the causes that made Jardim Gramacho the world’s biggest landfill are never explored, nor is the fact that the only recycling done at the site is done by the pickers. This flaw makes it less of an environmental documentary and more of a human-interest story.

Despite this shortcoming, Waste Land is worth watching. By the end of the story, the viewer is left genuinely concerned about the workers and wondering how they could go back to working in a dump after all they have experienced.

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