January’s film Waste Land is a Treasure of Art and Dignity

It used to be there was nothing more disgusting than a garbage dump, especially to Americans. But in other places of the world this view of refuse is changing. Agnés Varda, the French filmmaker, showed, in her The Gleaners and I (2000), how “gleaning”—scavenging among unpicked crops and trash—not only offers respectability to poor people but spirituality as well. And now a pair of documentary filmmakers, Lucy Walker and Karen Harley, has done the same thing for Brazilian paupers, those who eek out a living picking through the thousands of tons of waste dumped daily at Rio’s Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest and stinkiest comment on 21st century rubbish.

The catadores, as these thousands of Brazilian waste-sifters call themselves, have fashioned a proud, life-affirming attitude toward what they do for ten, twelve hours a day to make the equivalent of $20. They have successfully petitioned the Rio government to set up training centers and health clinics. A picker named Zumbi grew weary of seeing books affluent Rio residents had tossed aside. He cleaned up the books and set them out as a lending library. Many prostitutes and small-time criminals have given up their past professions to become catadores, which they perceive as offering more dignity and communal fairness than what they knew before, even if the money is less. Several women scavenge for edible food daily and brew up healthy stews and dishes for anyone needing sustenance.

The film, which Walker and Harley call ironically Waste Land, features the artist Vic Muniz who emigrated to New York from Brazil some years ago, and later learned of the vastness, the promise of Jardim Gramacho. Muniz returned to Gramacho to live there and raise money to ease the lives of the catadores. He developed a unique technique of taking pictures of the pickers, enlarging them, and then decorating the photos with actual pieces of garbage—all to show that garbage has potential to be beautiful and that people who work among it have souls worth rendering into art.

Muniz has sold some of his works as far away as Paris for as much as $50,000. Imagine the pride of a catadore to know that a picture of him was viewed by Parisians and sold for money that was ploughed (literally and figuratively) back into the catadore community.

It hardly needs to be said that Waste Land, which won several important awards at Sundance in 2010, reverberates with the themes of many contemporary films and books having to do with recycling, conserving, and feeling better about one’s self in the process.

Alternative consuming might some day catch on in the U.S. Need a coat rack? You could go to Walmart and buy something made of pressboard and plastic. Or you might go to a thrift store and give that slightly scratched stick of furniture—real wood to the core—a second (or third) life, and leave feeling like the AntiWalmart.

Muniz’ art is a breed apart, and so is Walker and Harley’s, neither one thing or the other, and certainly an alternative to traditional loveliness. Ah, so what is art? Maybe a better question today is, what isn’t it?

Two more films by Walker you might want to see: Devil’s Playground (2002), about Amish children daring to step outside Amish culture; and Blindsight (2006), about sightless Tibetans who triumphed by climbing the Himalayas. Harley was the editor on a documentary with the incredible title of I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You, about a journey to Northern Brazil in search of water and the soul.