"Waste Land" Highlights Brazil's Social Issues

By Abby Volkmann '13Photo Editor

Lucy Walker’s “Waste Land” highlights Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz’s work at the world’s largest garbage dump outside Rio de Janeiro. The film calls attention to the issue of social injustice in Brazil through an artistic and environmental lens.

Walker’s documentation of the intersection between poverty stricken garbage scavengers and environmental problems associated with overconsumption and waste remains surprisingly optimistic. Its uplifting tone makes “Waste Land” a film which registers as more of a feel-good exposé on overcoming social injustices than an environmental call to action regarding overflowing municipal waste sites.

The film’s message is clear and powerful: major cities produce an extraordinary amount of waste, of which some of their poorest residents depend on for livelihood. Vik Muniz developed an on-site participatory art project in which garbage-pickers at Brazil’s Jardin Gramacho dump site recreated images of themselves picking through heaping piles of trash. Their materials for the project were diverse and plentiful, as the scavengers had all of Rio de Janeiro’s municipal trash at their disposal. Muniz’s project provided the pickers with an opportunity to improve their quality of life both because they received all profits from their work and because their adverse situation was exposed to the international community. The film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar. The art pieces were auctioned off at roughly $10,000 each.

The project’s development is followed through a series of time-lapse shots that illustrate the craftsmanship, labor and dedication of the scavengers. Walker also includes personal narratives of the garbage pickers that contextualize the social justice aspect of the project. Glimpses of scavengers’ lives come through interviews and tours of their neighborhoods. Though a picker’s lifestyle is both shocking and depressing, pickers attitudes and spirits are uplifting. Walker highlights one man who finds discarded books and reads them for leisure, and a woman who feeds community members with discarded produce. One interview in particular reveals the good-natured spirits of a female picker: “[picking through garbage] is better than robbing purses in Copacabana. I find [this job] more dignified. I may stink, but when I get home I’ll take and shower and it’ll be fine.”

The film forces its viewers to consider the life cycle of the goods they throw away. It’s easy to overlook what happens to garbage when it’s picked up from curbsides. But “Waste Land” reminds viewers that trash doesn’t just evaporate. As scavengers place bottle caps, toilet seats, tape and unspooled film on the art project, viewers may meditate on how waste contributes to global environmental and social problems.