So the garbage from the millionaire’s mansion mixes with the garbage from the poorest favela?
“It’s not bad to be poor,” asserts Valter dos Santos, “It’s bad to be rich, at the height of fame, with your morals a dirty shame.” And with that, the 54-year-old garbage picker agrees to participate in the art project proposed by Vik Muniz, as well as the documentary about that project, Waste Land. With the camera on him, Valter goes on, “It will raise awareness of all us pickers. You didn’t ask me, but I’m going to introduce myself: I’ve been a picker for 26 years.”
The charismatic Valter seems an ideal subject for Lucy Walter’s film, which is equally concerned with showing and seeing. Certainly, workers in Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill are used to feeling invisible, and so find Muniz’s request to make portraits of them both strange and exciting. Muniz, born in Brazil and relocated to Brooklyn, has made his name by incorporating “everyday objects into his photographic process,” as the film puts it. For the current project, he has decided to use garbage to make pictures of the garbage pickers, and moreover, to employ the pickers in the assembly. Thus, he says, “What I really want to do is be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same material that they deal with every day.”
The film’s representation of this ambitious venture begins by introducing Muniz, whose own story is as unlikely as those of his subjects. He grew up in a working class family in São Paolo, he tells an audience in footage from 1998, and in 1982, he was involved in a street fight (trying to stop it, he says). “As I was going back to the car,” he says, “I get shot by a guy who thought I was one of the guys fighting with him.” As a result, Muniz received a payment from the shooter, enough to buy a ticket to New York in 1983. He sums up: “That’s why I’m talking to you today, because I got shot in the leg.”
The art Muniz has conceived since his injury is insistently material, as he’s deployed all manner of found substances—from string and peanut butter to diamonds and dirt—in order to comment on the world that produces them. In taking on he garbage project, he also seeks to “give back” to his homeland, in particular the garbage pickers, living lives that might have been his. “It could be me,” he observes, “For some unfortunate event, they just had to go live in the garbage.” He imagines that as they work on their own and each other’s images, the pickers will not only show themselves to a broader world that is for now comfortably oblivious to their existence, but also see themselves differently.
This last element in the project is the documentary’s most compelling focus. While it’s hardly unusual for documentaries to note their effects on the lives of subjects, this film incorporates discussions of same, or at least at discussion of such effects one remove, focused on how the art project, including a trip to New York for a show, might change the pickers’ perspectives. In this, Waste Land recalls Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski’s Born Into Brothels, in which the filmmakers endeavored to enroll their child subjects in school, to help them imagine futures apart from their birthplaces. In Walker’s movie, questions concerning what happens next are articulated differently by Muniz and his team and the pickers themselves.
Discussions with Sebastião Carlos dos Santos, president of ACAMJG (Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho), reveal that his efforts to organize some 3,000 pickers were founded in his understanding that their being seen and heard was crucial to their survival. Tiao, as dos Santos is known, remembers that he appealed to city administrators (“You are pretending we don’t exist”), went on a hunger strike to publicize the cause, and has since worked to modernize the system of garbage collection (via the construction of a recycling plant and the organization of workers so they collect garbage in categories).
Each of the pickers has a story—a lost child, an addiction or abusive husband, a devastating illness—circumstances that brought them to their current places. Now they collect trash to feed children or elderly parents. “It’s better than being out there like a lot of people, prostituting yourself,” says Suelem, “We are working honestly, we’re earning our living.” Grated, the conditions can be difficult, the stench of the landfill clinging to workers when they head home to their favelas, the lack of hope for change dampening each morning. As well, Suelem adds, “We see things that aren’t pleasant,” including occasional dead bodies consigned to the dump.
As Tiao and Suelem and other pickers describe themselves, they begin to take on new appearances, as individuals and also as members of a community. Multiple perspectives are also a focus of Muniz’s art. Close up, the giant images, based on photographs and then photographed to hang on gallery walls, break down into the garbage they’re made of—rows of broken doll parts, bottle caps, cans, and plastic containers arranged by color and texture to bring shape to a jaw-line, a child’s arm, or a squint into the sun (“When you are placing materials,” Muniz instructs the first-time artists, “follow the shadow of the picture”).
From a distance, Muniz explains, these bits and pieces of waste tell a story, they show a face or allude to an experience. But just as the art indicates a range of ways of seeing, so too do conversations among Muniz and his team members, who mull over the potential effects of their intervention. Cameraman Fabio Ghivelder notes, “We have to be careful. I can see already how delicate the whole situation is, of having them there [in London for a show] for their mind.” Muniz insists tat more experience, more exposure, more seeing and being seen, is beneficial. “It’s hard for me to imagine what would do much damage to them to do worse than what has been done to them already,” he argues. If they don’t want to go back to the landfill, that might be good, he thinks, “They get to see another reality and that changes their way of thinking.” Which is not to say they will be able to change their material lives.
As Waste Land watches Muniz, Tiao, and Suelem grapple with such questions about the artist’s relationship to his subjects (and, for the time being, employees), it asks a few more. These concern the responsibility of documentaries and documentary makers toward their subjects, both Muniz (who presents his interests and aims, while the film also contextualizes them so as to ask questions) and the pickers, whose generosity and courage are daunting.