My wife and I just saw Waste Land, a remarkable Brazilian documentary that has been nominated for a 2011 Academy Award. The Internet Movie Database entry for this film can be found here. We recommend it highly. In Washington, D.C., the film is now showing at the Avalon Theater at 10:30 A.M.
The film recounts a project by the Brazilian artist-photographer Vik Muniz, who worked for two years in Jardim Gramacho, one of the world’s largest landfill sites, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in the suburb of Duque de Caxias. Vik befriended several of the catadores who pick through the trash dumped in the landfill in order to extract recyclable materials. The film says that almost half of the trash can be recycled. Vik set up a studio at the landfill. He took photos of several of the catadores, projected them on the floor of his studio, and had the catadores fill in the projected photo with pieces of trash so the portrait was now created out of trash. He then photographed the resulting portrait from above.
One of Vik’s photos was sold at auction in London for $50,000. Altogether, he raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from the sale of these photos, which he donated to the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG) for the construction of a library.
The catadores who participated in this project are vivid characters. Several of them had been living lower-middle-class lives when some misfortune befell them, such as the death of a spouse. Destitute, they found their way to Jardim Gramacho, where they got gainful employment. Several of them say that they are glad to have socially useful work recycling rather than support themselves as prostitutes or drug dealers. Many of them, however, are ashamed of their work. By the end of their participation in Vik’s project, they have a new sense of possibility and pride.
Tiaõ (Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos), who founded the ACAMJG, has been working as a catador since he was 11 years old. He is a handsome man of great charisma, self-educated by reading books that he finds discarded in the trash. His reading runs to such books as Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and philosophical works by Friedrich Nietsche. Shortly after Vik’s project begins, Tiaõ spots a bathtub discarded in the trash and uses it to pose as the famous painting, The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David. Vik’s photo of this pose becomes the basis for one of his trash portraits.
The film portrays the catadores as having a strong sense of community. They work hard, both cooperatively and competitively. One feels a vivid sense of their Brazilian alegria — although their work is difficult and dirty, they find much to enjoy.
Vik Muniz intended his Jardim Gramacho project not only to produce art, but also to transform its participants. As you will see from the film, it does.
Added March 14, 2010: The Washington Post has a review of Waste Land that provides some useful additional information about Jardim Gramacho and the catadores. According to the review, Waste Land will be released as a DVD on March 15, and will premier on the PBS television show Independent Lens on April 19.