This critically acclaimed documentary is currently on Netflix, where I stumbled upon it two weeks ago. I do not usually watch documentaries, to be honest, but I thoroughly enjoyed Wasteland. Brazilian artist Vik Muniz has traveled the world and over the years become a well-established artist, living and working primarily from New York City. Muniz started as a sculptor then moved to mixed media and photography. This documentary follows Muniz on a trip to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill in terms of trash received daily, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
The first several minutes feel uncertain to me, like the director was unsure of what to show for background on Muniz to establish the artist for the viewer. The very first scene of the movie is a clip from a Brazilian talk show, and in it the host praises Muniz several times for being the “greatest artist alive,” which one might think you would say to someone who has agreed to come onto your talk show, but this air of being the best follows Muniz around for several scenes as he talks about his art. What choice is the director making by starting with the talk show clip? It is to show how great Muniz is, and how great he thinks he is as well. Muniz says later that he is the Brazilian artist “who sells and is the most popular overseas” when he is introducing himself to the President of the Pickers. This might be to help legitimize an outsider to the Pickers, but several scenes look prideful. The first presentation of the Pickers is a mix of shots from ground level, with Muniz, and from above, mimicking the way Muniz’s work will be viewed: aerial snap shots. If the content of the film were not as captivating as it is, then film would not have been as successful as it has been. There is nothing technically impressive about the videography, but the momentous weight of the film’s content carry it to award winning success.
Before Muniz leaves America, he talks with his studio director in Rio about his new idea to work in a landfill, and they have a conversation about the physical and environmental dangers of working in Gramacho. This conversation continues with his wife and with the camera, and we see the preconceptions that Muniz and others have about working there. He flies down to Brazil and starts talking to the Pickers, walking in and around the trash in Gramacho and then through a picketing of the Mayor’s office. The Pickers collect 200 tons of recyclable materials per day from the landfill, “that’s equivalent to the garbage produced by a city of 400,00 people,” says the manager of Jardim Gramacho. The leader of the Association of Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG) says that they have paved roads and a recycling center because the Pickers built one. The Pickers are picketing outside of the local Mayor’s office for a recycling collection program to be started on land that the federal government gave them for such a project. On this land, the Pickers built the recycling center without help from anyone, and now are waiting for the local mayor to get with the program and start up the collection program. What else is the Mayor waiting for after the Pickers have done all the work?
By the middle of the movie we begin to see that despite desperate circumstances, it is a happy environment because the Pickers believe in the work they are doing. They are proud because they know that if they did not do what they did, there would be much more trash and recyclable materials would be lost to the landfill.
Muniz’s and his group of artists’ preconceptions about Gramacho are dashed to pieces. The Pickers care about taking care of the world in which they live. The vice president of ACAMJG, a very old, uneducated man, does the math for Muniz about Gramacho, saying that they are keeping the rivers and lagoons from pollution, they are picking out materials “that won’t clog the sewers or be buried … in the landfill, doing such great harm to nature and the environment. I try to explain to people what they can recycle and what they can compost… ‘But one single can?’ One single can can make a difference, because 99 is not 100.” I saw this clip and I thought what if there were more people like that in America, which is full of highly educated people? Here is this man who is obviously so passionate about this work. This shows exactly why the Pickers of Gramacho do what they do: for the good of the people of the world and for the land we live on. In the end, Muniz seems to be very humbled by this whole experience, even changing the form of the art project after living and working with the Pickers. In the end everyone learns a lesson, and the Pickers of the organization see their dreams and ACAMJG’s potential realized.