Waste Land

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
– T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

Can a film about a landfill site and the people who scrape a living there, collecting recyclable materials, move and inspire?  Lucy Walker’s film Waste Land, which documents the project in which Brazilian artist Vik Muniz worked with these people to create artworks out of the garbage unequivocally does.  It is a moving and humbling experience.

Vik Muniz grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Sao Paulo. He now lives in New York where he has built a successful artistic career, his artworks now commanding high prices on the world art market.  He has developed a technique which involves photographing work that  incorporates unlikely materials such as dirt, diamonds,
sugar, string, chocolate syrup and garbage. For this project, he travelled back to Brazil, to Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill site in the world outside Rio de Janeiro, to photograph the catadores – pickers of recyclable materials – and to work with them to create artworks using garbage.

It seems that in Brazil the authorities do not organise the recycling of rubbish – instead the catadores are licensed to collect recyclable material from the dump which they sell to a network of wholesalers and middlemen; recycled metal, for instance, eventually becomes buckets and car bumpers.  Most of the workers, who earn £12-15 a day sifting the stinking garbage in dangerous conditions, live at Jardim Gramacho in a shanty town that has grown alongside the dump.  Remarkably, the catadores are organised in the Garbage Pickers Association of Jardim Gramacho.

In the film, we see Muniz befriend and collaborate with a group of inspiring characters from the dump to create large-scale portraits of the catadores, including Irma, a cook who sells  food in the  dump;  Zumbi, the resident  intellectual who has  held  onto every book he’s  scavenged and dreams of starting a library for the pickers; Tiaõ, the young, charismatic President of  the Garbage Pickers Association; and 18-year-old Suelem, who first worked there when she was seven.

Lucy Walker’s film reveals as much about the catadores as about Muniz the artist; it portrays the workers’ dignity and suggests that art can have a transformative power, producing work that celebrates the human spirit. Muniz  is  not  interested  in  the politics of  pity that  portrays the catadores as  passive victims:

These  people are at the other end of  consumer culture.  I was expecting to see people who were beaten and  broken, but they were survivors.

We see how Muniz achieves this – buying a selection of the recyclable materials off the tip, and renting  a warehouse,  where he projects photographs of the pickers onto the floor as giant outline images.  The pickers then arrange the rubbish around the outlines of their portrait.  Finally, Muniz photographs the finished compositions from a balcony. Then, calling upon his resources as a world famous artist, Muniz sells the portraits at art auctions – the first sale alone raising $64,097, all of which went back to the Garbage Pickers Association of Jardim Gramacho.

Roger Ebert, in his review of Waste Land, wrote:

I do not mean to make their lives seem easy or pleasant. It is miserable work, even after they grow accustomed to the smell. But it is useful work, and I have been thinking much about the happiness to be found by work that is honest and valuable. If you set the working conditions aside (which of course you cannot), I suggest the work of a garbage picker is more satisfying than that of a derivatives broker. How does it feel to get rich selling worthless paper to people you have lied to?

‘We are not pickers of garbage; we are pickers of recyclable materials’, Tião declares at one point, correcting a talk-show host in a clip Lucy Walker incorporates into her documentary.


Magna fell on hard times when her husband lost his job, and has worked at Jardim Gramacho since then. She says that, stinking of the garbage after a day’s labour, other bus passengers sometimes turn their noses up at her.  But she tells them at least she’s not selling her body on Copacabana. ‘It’s better than being out there, like a lot of people, prostituting yourself. We are working honestly’.

Tiaõ is the President of ACAMJG (the Association for the Pickers of  Jardim  Gramacho), the co-operative he established that aims to  improve the lives of the catadores. He believes that the main benefit of the film wasn’t just the money that the Association received, but the film itself, which mobilized a lot of people towards their cause and raised awareness. People who see the film now see the catadores differently, he argues; and the Brazilian government will be using the film in a campaign to get people to recycle more and engage in selective collection.

Zumbi is the resident intellectual. When he sees a book, he doesn’t see just recycling paper. He has kept every book he’s ever found on the landfill, and has started a community  lending  library in his shack.  With the money raised from the project, he and Tiaõ built a library for the catadores and their children which is now up and running with more than 7000 books, an IT room with computers and a learning centre.

Suelem  has worked at Jardim Gramacho since she was seven;  now 18 with two kids and another on the way, she’s proud of her work, because she’s not a prostitute or involved in the drug traffic.

Isis loves fashion and hates picking garbage. There is an emotional scene in the film when she breaks down and reveals the tragedy that brought her to the dump.  After the film she left Jardim Gramacho and eventually started working with a jewelry designer who uses recycled jewelry. The money donated to her individually helped her survive while she was looking for a new job, to buy a new bed, some clothes and she also gave some money to her mother.

The film also poses the question: can you leave the life of a picker, fly to another country, stay in luxury and then return to the dump? It is a matter for heated debate in the film, but eventually Tiao does join Muniz at the auction  in London, where his portrait sells for £30,000. He cries as Muniz embraces him, but feels it is recognition for his life, for his determination to start the association and for the dignity of his work.

This video, Beyond Gramacho, reveals the socio-economic and environmental conditions, struggles and opportunities in informal resource recovery. Over 1800 catadores work day and night at the landfill and neighbouring recycling cooperatives, recovering recyclable materials from the waste stream. The video aims to raise awareness about the livelihoods of the catadores, and the important work they are doing to recover resources.

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