‘Waste Land’ Documentary Looks at the Lives of Trash Pickers

Once, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s job was to clean meat dumpsters. Now he brings us his “Waste Land” documentary, a journey into the lives of eccentric and colorful garbage-pickers who remove and sort recycled materials on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, at what was once the world’s largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho (reluctantly named the “city of garbage”).

To film this gripping story, Muniz, an artist known for creating artwork out of recyclable materials, collaborates with natives who are in many ways ‘discarded’ in the same manner as the materials for their art — living on the fringe of society.

Trash and Art

The Waste Land documentary explores more than just repurposing trash; it creates an interactive portrait examining the lives people who work as trash pickers in terrible circumstances. It’s a film about whose hands our trash ends up in and the power of community art to propel people to action to save the world from becoming a waste land.

Muniz and his crew spent over three years filming, offering the scavengers whatever money his imagery of the pickers might bring to them at a London art auction — offering his talent and notoriety to give back to the type of community that raised him.

“What I really want to do,” says Muniz, “is to change the lives of a group of people with the same material that they deal with every day.”

He transforms fragments of the landfill into high contemporary art. Filmmakers, trash pickers-turned-artists and viewers alike watch as bottle caps, doll heads and bicycle parts are collected, carefully placed around projections of photographs of the trash pickers and transformed into beautiful and honest portraits. We see the pride of women who chose picking trash over prostitution and men who choose to the honor of laboring in hell — both working to turn our world back into what it was before garbage became its regular outfit.

Garbage Goes to London

A select number of these trash-picker artists traveled with their photographs to London to be storytellers for the visual representation of their lives. In this way, London elite meets garbage.

Many of the trash pickers have no formal education, yet are still considered artists. London viewers find that of these individuals, some can read. Some tear up the paper and recycle them without a second thought, whereas some rescue books. Still others hate being pickers and see no future in this work (or even their lives). They seek escape, but it feels impossible.

The filmmakers expressed concern about taking these workers to America as celebrities, only to return them to the same circumstances they left behind at the landfill. But when the trash-picker artists were asked if they wished they’d never been disturbed at all, they unanimously agreed the art project was worthwhile — giving them hope and pride in difficult work. Here, we find the undying power of the human spirit.

Spreading the Word

Valter dos Santos, a picker for 26 years who also represents 2,500 fellow pickers who work at the same dump, feels an undeniable sense of pride and desire to raise awareness. “I carry this with pride,” he says. “It’s not bad to be poor. It’s bad to be rich at the height of fame with your morals a dirty shame. That’s bad.”

He asks Muniz why he embarked on this venture, and why he’s so keen to make their portraits. “Because the picker is a person, like this garbage, that nobody knows about,” Muniz responds.

Valter is just as keen for the world to see the pickers. If each household generates approximately one kilo of garbage, he suggests, then it contains around 500 grams of recyclable material. So, a thousand households would generate 500 kilograms of material that could be recycled.

“That’s 500 kilos less of material that would pollute the rivers, the lagoons, that won’t clog the sewers or be buried here in the landfills, doing such great harm to nature and the environment.”

People often ask him, “Really, one can?” But even one person can make a difference. “Because 99 is not 100, that one makes the difference.”

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