Waste Land

Waste Land, a film about a unique Brazilian art project, caused a stir at the Oscars. We find out why

Vik Muniz/Press image
One of Vik Muniz's artworks, made from garbage

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s project to create art from rubbish and the lives of people who work with it is the subject of a new Oscar-nominated documentary, Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário), directed by Lucy Walker, João Jardim and Karen Harley. The joint British-Brazilian production has raked up prizes at various national and international film festivals – from the Festival Paulínia de Cinema in São Paulo state to the Sundance Film Festival.

While developing this experimental artistic project in combination with the catadores (informal recyclers) at Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill in Latin America, Muniz was unpleasantly surprised. ‘The area has a smell that impregnates your skin. You need hours in the tub to eliminate the stink. To work in a place like that, you have to be very strong-willed,’ he explains. There, he found diligent, dignified people, proud of what they do, and still maintaining a sense of humour. ‘There are some unbelievable stories, of amazing humanism. I’ve learned a lot with these folks.’

One man's trash

New York-based Muniz came up with the project during a period of professional doubt. ‘I needed to renew the idea of the existence of art. Not just for me, but for others as well.’ The idea was to document an artistic process in its entirety, from the point of creation to the exhibition of the work. The question: ‘Can art change people?’

Wanting to assess the results of the experiment using people he felt had little or no contact with art, Muniz, known for producing images made with unusual materials such as sugar, strawberry jam and diamonds, decided to work with what society deems most unworthy: rubbish. 

The initial plan was to photograph scenes at the landfill, then reconstruct them using the recyclable material collected by the catadores, who would in turn earn the proceeds from the sale of the artwork. What he hadn’t counted on was how intimately involved he would become with the community of recyclers.

Tião Santos, a catador since the age of seven, and the president and founder of the Jardim Gramacho Metropolitan Landfill Recyclers Association (Associação dos Catadores do Aterro Metropolitano do Jardim Gramacho), discovered through his relationship with Muniz, that ‘art is not only made for rich people with supernatural intelligence,’ but it can also be ‘transforming and contribute to people’s lives.’ Santos witnessed his own life being changed.

‘This experience made us reflect about what the catadores get from recycled items and about the importance of selective rubbish collection.’ Santos, as Brazil’s point-man on the topic, hopes to use the film’s visibility to promote progressive national policies on waste management.

‘That’s the aggregated value of the work,’ believes Muniz. ‘This movie proves that everyone has a right to feel art, because it enriches life.’

Portrait of a landfill

The grandeur of Jardim Gramacho, which is scheduled to close sometime next year, is immediately evident in the film: the immense dimensions of the landfill, menacing vultures, people collecting valuable bits of recyclable material amongst an immeasurable amount of garbage where even a dead baby was found. Not only is Waste Land a portrait of a landfill and the hearty souls who make their living from it, the movie is a portrait of Muniz’s artistic career.

Executive producer Jackie de Botton believes that Muniz initiated a great process of transformation, for himself and everyone involved with the project. ‘It is possible to stimulate change in society and, in this case, public policies about recycling.’

Is there art and beauty in ugliness and odour? Muniz believes so. ‘Working with what’s most ugly in society and transforming it into something beautiful makes a human being want to become better.’

By Joana Curvo


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