Vik Muniz is the King Midas of Garbage. He painstakingly creates very large images from materials such as chocolate, butter and sugar and then photographs them. In Waste Land, Muniz fulfills his biggest ambition to date: he goes to Gramacho Landfill in Brazilian town of Duque de Caxias (the largest landfill in the world) and creates portraits of some of the 3,000 local workers (known as pickers) from the material that they collected themselves.
Muniz gets very close to their subject, finding out about their life stories, fears and aspirations, particularly those of Tião, Zumbi, Ísis and Válter. They are very energetic and resilient workers, toiling under all sorts of weather conditions. The smell of the place is so pungent that it stays with the pickers days after they left Gramacho. Disease is also widespread. PVálter explains where such determination comes from “being poor is not bad; it’s bad being rich high up on the steps of fame with your morals covered in mud” (taken from the song Lama by Mauro Duarte, famously sung by Clara Nunes). Muniz explains: “classism is poisonous in Brazil; wealthy people believe that they are better than others.”
The artist soon realises that he is not alone in his endeavour, and that his work would not make much sense if the pickers themselves did not get involved. Even more significantly, his work would not make much sense if it did not promote change in the community. Vik then promises to auction the pieces in London and to return the profits to the pickers themselves.
The pickers also get involved in the production of giant murals. Not only are they the subject of the powerful photographs that provide the backbone of the piece, but they also place the garbage – which they collected themselves from the landfill – on top of it. They are supervised all along by Muniz, who also does the final click from a camera on a platform above. The result is breathtaking: think of Gustaf Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’ with disposed bottles, toilets seats and tires instead of gold.
According to one of the pickers, the “worst people and the worst things in the world” end up in the waste land. The “worst people” are the dead bodies of gangsters and drug traffickers that routinely end up in the landfill. Yet, it is precisely from this filthy garbage, the effluence of the affluent and the middle class, that hope, zeal and art are born.
Vik Muniz empowers the pickers, helping them to reclaim their self-confidence and pride, as well as to discover a artistic and enterpreunerial streak in some of them. They turn dirt into both spiritual and pecuniary wealth, whereby changing their lives forever.
The protagonist of Pixote (Hector Babenco, 1981), who played a marginalised street kid (similar to his own predicament), ended up killed by the police. The protagonists of Waste Land, however, saw a happy disclosure to their cinematic adventure: the landfill was closed the following year (2012) and the large money sums from the auctions helped to catapult those in the film out of abject poverty. Most of them have aspirations for themselves and their kids: they want to be a lawyer, a doctor or a psychologist.
The poverty in which these people live is so intoxicating, that the speed of the auction in London at times feels offensive. In just seconds, the rich spend tens of thousands of pounds in the work that was created by people living on £200 a month in subhuman insalubrious conditions. It also feels vulgar and grotesque, but it is precisely this money that changed the lives of these people.
Waste Land is a celebration of faith in life and optimism., It has been distributed and widely seen in Brazil, Europe and the USA, amongst other places. DMovies also selected it as one of “the dirtiest Brazilian films of the past 10 years”.