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February 4, 2014

Waste Land

by Franz Patrick


Waste Land (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Vik Muniz is a celebrated contemporary artist whose last work prior to his well-received portrait of “trash pickers” featured images of children who worked in sugar plantations. Since his career of using every day objects to create works of art had flourished, Muniz, having grown up poor, thought he could give back to his community by putting the spotlight on marginalized recyclable material pickers in Jardim Gramacho, a landfill near Rio de Janeiro.

I was moved by “Waste Land” because it is not just about allowing us to take a peek on how Muniz creates his work. It is about a specific community—one many like to pretend do not exist. We are given a chance to meet a number of colorful individuals who work in the landfill and the questions they are asked may not always have easy answers. The questions range from the impersonal like what sorts of material they are assigned to collect to more probing like how they feel about having a job that most people might instantly dismiss as disgusting and pointless. While not all of the recyclable material pickers enjoy the job, a commonality is the pride in their work because it is an honest way to make a living.

One of the women confesses that there was a time when she lost her temper after a long day of work because a woman next to her did not bother to hide a look of disgust. She told the woman that she might have smelled at that instant, but the foul odor could be eliminated by a simple shower, that picking through trash was a better alternative than prostitution. I felt like giving her a hug right there even if she smelled of gunk. I genuinely believe that the true heroes in this world may not necessarily be recognized. People who get up every day to support their families in an honest way are heroes in my eyes.

As we get to know the men and women who help Muniz to complete his latest project, the camera zooms in and out of the dumping ground, ranging from aerial shots to literally being two inches away from the bacteria-infested ground. I could not discern which had more impact on me.

When the camera focuses on a specific pile of garbage, I was not able to imagine having the mental strength to get up every day and sort through them for hours. There are some comments about how surprising it is how quickly one gets used to the smell, but just imagine the health hazards innate to the job. When the camera zooms out, it is like looking at an ocean of trash that goes on for miles. It is a shocking reminder that the trash bags we put in the dumpster must go somewhere. When we do not see how much waste we create, it is really all too easy to take it for granted.

Furthermore, the film makes a point that while it is wonderful of Muniz to raise money for the pickers through auctioning the final products abroad, it also has unforeseen positive and negative consequences. By allowing the pickers to be a part of an artistic process in a studio, it makes them feel less invisible. For once, they feel more connected to the world. However, once it is over, they no longer wish to go back to the landfill. What responsibility does Muniz have for his subjects?

Although “Waste Land,” directed by Lucky Walker, Karen Harley, and João Jardim, thrusts us onto an environment where we can almost taste the mephitic stench of mountains of trash, it focuses on the beauty found in the pickers’ resilience. Their story reflects that of Muniz’, a former cleaner of dumpsters.

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