On the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro is Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill, where men and women sift through garbage for a living. Artist Vik Muniz produces portraits of the workers and learns about their lives.
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An uplifting feature documentary highlighting the transformative power of art and the beauty of the human spirit. Top-selling contemporary artist Vik Muniz takes us on an emotional journey from Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, to the heights of international art stardom. Vik collaborates with the brilliant catadores, pickers of recyclable materials, true Shakespearean characters who live and work in the garbage quoting Machiavelli and showing us how to recycle ourselves. Written by
Following in the path of Edvard Munch who said, "I will paint living people who breathe and feel and suffer and love," artist Vik Muniz travels from his studio in Brooklyn to Rio de Janeiro to "give back" to the people of Brazil where he was born and raised. In Lucy Walker's (Countdown to Zero) inspiring documentary, Waste Land, winner of the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, we are taken inside the squalid landfill known as Jardim Gramacho on the outskirts of Rio to see the largest garbage dump in the world where 7,000 tons of Rio's trash is deposited every day. The film is seen through the eyes of the "pickers," called catadores who live and work in this squalid environment, eking out a living of $20-25 U.S. a day.
The catadores, who number in the thousands, work under burning hot sun and overpowering odors collecting and selling recyclable materials such as bottles, plastic, and metal to wholesalers and middlemen who turn them into such resalable items as buckets or bumpers for automobiles. Vic Muniz' plan is to select and paint a group of six catadores to pose as photographic subjects that will mimic such classic paintings as "The Death of Marat" by Jacques-Louis David. Money from sales of the resulting art will go to the pickers association for the benefit of the workers. The project included Tiao, the leader of ACAMJG (Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho) who went on a hunger strike to dramatize the conditions of the pickers and built an organization that helped create a skills-training center and a medical clinic for the workers.
There was also Zumbi, a member of the association, who began a library from his home from books that had been discarded, Irma, a cook who makes stews and roasts from edible meat to feed the workers, Suelem, an 18-year old girl who has been working in the garbage dump since she was only seven years old, and Valter, an elderly man who entertains with stories and songs and who decides to participate because he believes that "it will raise awareness of all us pickers." Once the initial photographs are made, Muniz projects an enlarged version of each photo onto the floor of his studio and hires the pickers to add refuse from the landfill onto the canvas, photographing the result from overhead. This then becomes the finished art work, ready to be exhibited at auctions and museums around the world with the pickers traveling to such cities as London and New York, the first time they have ever left Gramacho.
Waste Land is not only a biography of an artist, but a look at the artist in the context of the community in which his art is created. Muniz reveals the courage and resilience of the people in spite of their grinding poverty and depressing environment. Many are former middle class residents of the suburbs who chose the life of the picker rather than becoming prostitutes or drug dealers and are happy with their choice. Though Muniz's goal was, "to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same material that they deal with every day," he never dreamed that his work would impact the lives of the people so dramatically.
Through his efforts, many of the residents who worked for him have changed their life and either reconciled with their families or gone on to more rewarding jobs. Modernization has also begun to take shape at Gramacho. A recycling plant has been built and the workers have been separated into categories for more efficient organization. Though admittedly just a beginning, Muniz has demonstrated that the power of art is available to all people regardless of their circumstances, allowing them to experience their inner beauty and believe in themselves in a new way. Not succumbing to the temptations of melodramatic excess, Waste Land has been shortlisted for an Oscar for Best Documentary and fully deserves to be among the finalists.
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