Portraits bloom in a Rio landfill
By Stephanie Merry
Friday, December 3, 2010
It may seem contradictory that Rio de Janeiro's largest landfill is called Jardim Gramacho (Gramacho Garden). But spend some time there, thanks to the documentary "Waste Land," and you start to get the sense that, amid the trash, something really is blooming.
Filmmaker Lucy Walker (the director behind the well-received documentary "Countdown to Zero") follows Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz in his artistic quest to give back to a community in need. He decides to create portraits of the men and women who make a living by trolling Gramacho, sifting through garbage, food scraps and sometimes even dead bodies in search of recyclable materials.
The pickers ("catadores") Muniz chooses to depict offer a glimpse at the kaleidoscope of characters at the landfill. Suelem is an 18-year-old mother of two who has been working there since she was 7; Zumbi dreams of starting a library with the discarded books he discovers; Tiao, who unionized the pickers despite heavy opposition, reads Machiavelli; Isis dons dangly earrings and miniskirts to perform her duties.
While these characters have lived through some devastating moments - the loss of significant others, children, jobs - the documentary is ultimately an inspiring one about the human capacity for reinvention during dark times. And this makes the movie especially timely as retirement funds disappear and people are forced to trade in high-powered jobs for low-wage ones. But despite their misfortune, the stars of "Waste Land" don't want pity; as one catador says, "It's better than turning tricks in Copacabana." This is a more dignified existence than some of the alternatives.
Learning about these characters only partially explains why the documentary received so much attention - and so many awards - on the film festival circuit, including an audience award at Sundance. Watching Muniz work is equally captivating.
The artist creates massive portraits of his subjects by projecting photos on the ground and overlaying the faces, contours and shadows with a mosaic of recyclable materials. He then photographs the display to create a portable piece of art. One of the most impressive is a re-creation of Jacques-Louis David's "Death of Marat," with Tiao standing in for the murdered revolutionary.
The finished product, and the money it rakes in at auction to benefit the catadores, is just one variation on the film's theme of turning trash into treasure.
Even Muniz claims his success arose from a bad break. After stopping a fight, he was mistakenly shot in the leg, and it was the compensation from this injury that allowed him to exchange an existence working at a meat dumpster behind a grocery store for the chance to travel to the United States and become an artist. He has since shown his work at the Venice Biennial and New York's Museum of Modern Art.
Life is unpredictable that way. "Waste Land" is a testament that things can go from good to bad in an instant. But they can also improve just as quickly.
Contains nothing objectionable. In English and Portuguese with English subtitles.