Modern Art, Trash Pickers, and the Biggest Dump in the World: A Review of the film “Waste Land”

Waste Land is a film about the Brooklyn-based artist Vic Muniz’s journey back to his native Brazil to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump. On the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro Muniz photographs the “catadores,” a band of people who pick recyclable materials out of the dump and sell it to make a living. After photographing each individual, he enlists the help of his catadores subjects to reconstruct the image from garbage found in the dump. The garbage portraits are blown up on massive scale, photographed from above and then auctioned at international market. The film’s focus was on the pickers with Muniz primarily acting as a facilitator or interviewer. Muniz interviewed each of his photographic subjects for the film, focusing on why each person decided to start picking and what the everyday experience of picking is like for him or her. The film concluded with postscript updating viewers about the lives of the featured pickers at the time of the release date.

At the end I felt inspired by the work of Muniz and eager for more world-renowned artists to adopt this approach in representing other cultures, paying them in return for their contribution to the artist’s work. I was fully supportive of Muniz for spending three years getting to know the people and the community he photographed. When the film asked the question, what will these pickers do when we leave, I was satisfied by the answer the film provided. The pickers have built better facilities with the money donated from the proceeds of Muniz’ projects. However, I was somewhat dissatisfied with the portrayal of the pickers as intentional environmentalists. The filmmakers emphasized the picking of trash as some kind of moral duty the pickers felt for fixing Rio de Janeiro’s wasteful habits of disposal. However, if you really listened to what the pickers were saying, it sounded like they picked recyclables for economic reasons. They came from poor backgrounds and picking is a fairly lucrative form of self-employment that does not require any credentials or an education.

The film was definitely constructed to encourage support for Muniz’s work, but it was also constructed to inspire emphathy for the catadores as well as an understanding of their work. More broadly, it aimed to raise awareness of the waste disposal issues in Rio de Janeiro. By centering the narrative around the stories of select pickers at Jarhim Gramacho, especially the leader of the recycling collection organization, the film told a compelling narrative about the picker community. By showing interviews live footage from the dump and picker’s often dilapidated homes, the film really brought the viewer inside the experience of what it is like to be a picker. It showed us about the everyday from an inside perspective rather than telling which I believe contributed to the film’s honesty and humble conviction.

The film’s portrayal of Muniz seemed candid as well, although it may have glazed over any conflicts he might have had, making the project seem simple and flawless in its execution. It characterizes Muniz enough to peak the viewer’s interest and understanding of his goals without making the film about him. We are shown Muniz’s childhood home in Rio de Janeiro and learn about some of his previous work, but are always quickly catapulted into the present tense where we see Muniz as the friend of the catadores. The film may present an overly optimistic vision of Muniz’s project. He is always shown having great friendly conversations with the pickers and his artistic cohorts which, knowing the art world and knowing humans, usually is not the case. However, I do not think this takes away from the film’s effectiveness. It is not as important to show these details of the project because the purpose of the film is to generate enthusiasm and understanding for the people and the project, not to be a soap opera of the modern art world or Jardim Gramacho.

In all, the film was educational in that it raised awareness about the existence of a population in the world that is usually completely ignored. And, although this was not the focus of the film, it showed striking footage of the largest garbage dump in the world. So although no environmentalist aims were explicitly stated, the images spoke volumes. Our trash goes somewhere and we need to do something about it because we have way too much. I would have liked more explicit address of this issue including a larger perspective on why this city has such issues with waste disposal including perspectives from the city government or trash collectors. But maybe that’s the subject of another film. Telling the stories behind Muniz’s photographs through film was extremely effective in this case. When you see his work, you know there’s a story behind it, and this film tells that story with sensitivity and detail to the subject matter. I would definitely recommend Waste Land to anyone who is interested in environmental science, art, or anthropology.

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