Multiply your weekly rubbish by the number of weeks in your life, then multiply that by the houses in your city. You’ve now got the world’s largest trash dump, Jardim (‘garden’) Gramacho, located on the arse-end of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Garden? Basta, enough! This landfill site is no more a garden than a homeless serial killer is a hobbied gentleman of leisure.
Filmed over three years, Waste Land is a life-affirming study of Jardim Gramacho’s ‘catadores’ – self-designated pickers of recyclable materials who educate themselves through reading books they find in the dump and have formed their own workers’ union.
The documentary is nominally held together by Brazilian-born Brooklyn artist Vik Muniz as he embarks on an art project with the catadores. In order to bring invisible social issues into the light they will jointly create self-portraits using materials from the landfill site. These self-portraits will imbue the catadores with increased self-worth in the face of social contempt, and proceeds from art sales of the pieces will fund the catadores’ self-established union. Nice trick, Vik.
Waste Land does a lovely balancing act with environmental awareness and emotional investment as it traverses the high wire of pure rags-to-riches Cinderella Fairytale. The catadores feel like life’s microcosm with their eclectic stories and characters. Their unstooped shoulders in the face of adversity embody ‘grace under fire’.
My only reservations with this documentary lie in the consequences of rescuing Cinderella from the cellar, taking her to the ball then – at the stroke of midnight – taking her back to the cellar again. Art and simple human acknoledgement have done wonders for the catadores, but what happens when the party stops? This film makes a point of addressing that, and it is up to the viewer to decide if they’re comfortable with the results.
Waste Land is a brave and life-affirming little documentary, with warm characters and rich stories to fall in love with and fear for. It aims to leave no stone unturned, so if you’re looking for a human story or an eye-opening education in How The World Is, you’ll find them both here.