by Alexandra Marie Daniels
Can art change lives? Two artists, photographer Vik Muniz and filmmaker Lucy Walker, search for an answer by traveling to the largest landfill on the planet, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Out of poverty, desperation, and misfortune, a community of catadores – or garbage pickers – lives and works in the landfill plucking recyclable material from mountains of trash.
The documentary film Waste Land is a multi-layered window into this eclectic community of almost mythic characters that could not have been better scripted for a feature film. Muniz collaborates with the catadores to create portraits using the materials the workers collect. The experience changes the catadores’ lives. It changes his life. And, without preaching or pity, Waste Land offers viewers the opportunity to examine and change their own lives.
There is nothing glamorous about living and working in the landfill. Like a hot compress on an erupting boil, methane gas spews from poisoned earth. Watching the film I could almost smell the stench as if it seeped through the movie screen. Isis, one of the first women we meet from the landfill, is clear to point this out. She hates the garbage, but tragedy has brought her to Gramacho.Despite the extreme conditions, the community spirit displayed by these people is far from impoverished. Waste Land illustrates, in the words of Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef, the “enormous creativity” that life in the landfill demands. I was astonished by the positive character traits found among these people. The catadores work together. They have dignity and self-respect. Magna, who fell on hard times when her husband lost his job, shares, “It’s better than turning tricks in Copacabana. … I find it to be more interesting and more honest.” Suelem, who is only 18 and has been working in the garbage since she was seven, says she is proud of her work. “At least I’m not involved with the drug traffic or prostituting myself, like a lot of the pretty girls around here do.”
In Gramacho there is an inherent concept of resourcefulness, pride, and mutual aid. Tiaõ has organized the catadores and formed an association to improve their lives. Zumbi collects every book he finds and creates a community library. Irma, the resident chef explains, “In this water, in this garbage, I feel very good. Even if it rains, I get the fire running to cook. I don’t let anyone go hungry.” Valter, despite no formal education, speaks poetry and wisdom as he explains the value of recycling. “One single can is of great importance,” he shares, “because 99 is not 100, and that single one will make the difference.”
I left the film bewildered by the absence of greed in their lives, such a sharp contrast to Los Angeles, California. Arriving at my appointment with Waste Land Director Lucy Walker, I felt uncomfortably aware of the “to go” coffee and plastic water bottle I held in each hand. I began calculating how much garbage I had accumulated that day alone and it was only 11:00 a.m. When Lucy Walker and I sat down together both of us commented right away on our plastic water bottles – like an uncomfortably aware, post Waste Land “Cin Cin.”
The smiles and the portraits of the catadores floated all morning like screensavers in my mind so I began our conversation by asking Ms. Walker if her perception of happiness had shifted from meeting the catadores and making this film. “[Gramacho] was such a happy environment,” she explains. “The positive, amazing, inspirational traits shown so brightly in some of these people that you started to wonder whether … there is something about the challenges that they had confronted that had brought out the best in them.”
Walker’s face lights up as she describes how Irma prepared meals for the catadores on the methane garbage gas. “I mean it’s like a fairy tale. You’ve got Irma cooking food for everybody with such joy and love. … She’s using garbage food with garbage utensils. I mean it’s all reclaimed and yet it’s wholesome, nourishing. It’s waste that she is turning into nutritious food for everybody that they are so grateful for.” Her words confirm the joy, companionship, and community spirit I witnessed in the film.
Reflecting on happiness Lucy Walker talks about Vik Muniz. Raised in a lower middle class family in São Paulo, Muniz has become “Mr. Successful, a poster boy for striking it rich.” He has everything in his life that he could possibly want and has reached the point where he wants to give back. Walker describes how happy Muniz was bonding with the catadores and how upon returning to his Brooklyn studio he seems “possessed” and “oppressed” by his beautiful acquisitions.
Walker reflects on her own difficulties spending the days in Gramacho and the evenings with Rio’s “art star elite.”
“We don’t normally swing back and forth between different socio-economic lanes in life and I personally found it really … hard to enjoy a nice meal when you’ve just been with people that earn less than [your bill] per month.”
What Lucy Walker does with this awareness is make a highly acclaimed, award-winning documentary film. Like a quality narrative feature, Walker engrosses us in a world we would never travel to and engages us with a group of people we would otherwise never meet. She brings the craft of narrative filmmaking to Waste Land with attention to exquisite cinematography by Dudu Miranda, sharp editing by Pedro Kos, and a fantastic musical score by Moby.
Impressed by the cinematic quality of Ms. Walker’s art, I asked her why she chose documentaries over narrative films. “I think it’s the golden age of documentary filmmaking right now,” she tells me. “Everything is just so much more easily manipulated, affordable, and accessible in the last 10 years.”
“I’ve also had more luck raising funds to make documentary films or getting jobs as a director. It is hard to do that in fiction. Especially, honestly, as a woman.”
She continues, “[Documentaries have] been more accessible and more creative. … I’ve also had more freedom to sink my teeth into a subject and really observe, and really find a story, and really find people, and really figure out what’s going on, and really figure out how to then communicate that to an audience in a really satisfying feature structure.”
For Lucy Walker, Waste Land’s U.S. theatrical release is “dream come true land.” She jokes, “It’s very unusual. A documentary about garbage! So I guess I am just excited for audiences to see it because I feel like when they do, it is such a rich meditation. … Lots of stuff comes up and it’s very emotional and the music is so beautiful, and the images are so beautiful, that I think you get a chance to reflect on life and fate and fortune and waste and humanity and opportunity … in the company of these outrageously surprising people.”
About the Author:
Alexandra Marie Daniels is a writer, dancer, and filmmaker. Born in California, at age 17 she moved to New York City, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College. She choreographed and taught with Jacques D’Amboise’s National Dance Institute and in 2000 returned to Sarah Lawrence to receive her Master of Fine Arts degree in dance. In 2007, Ms. Daniels attended the Los Angeles Film School and has since been working in film. She has made three films with the director Bernard Rose, including The Kreutzer Sonata (2008) and Mr. Nice (2010) and has worked with the director Martyn Atkins as a script supervisor on concerts such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood: Live from Madison Square Garden and The Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010. Currently, she is teaming up with Los Angeles based choreographer Sarah Swenson to create a film version of Swenson’s Fimmine and teaches Pilates in Los Angeles.