Waste Land, a 2010 art documentary, played at the Maria & Alberto de la Cruz Art Gallery during a screening on Dec. 4. Directed by Lucy Walker, the documentary follows artist Vik Muniz and his efforts to create contemporary art out of materials found in the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho.
The film was shown as a part of a series of programs in the gallery meant to complement and expand on the ongoing exhibition “Design Transfigures/Waste Reimagined.” This project also ties into Georgetown’s Core Pathways Program, a collection of courses that focus on the global issue of climate change. Waste Land addresses this topic in a more subtle way, showcasing the problems with recycling and consumerism by creating art from garbage.
Walker was inspired by her experience at Fresh Kills, the landfill in Staten Island, to create this kind of documentary. Her visit occurred in 2000, before the landfill became known as the debris site from the World Trade Center. Despite this, she found the sight intriguing. “It was the most haunting place. And all of the garbage I’d ever generated living in New York City was in there somewhere. This was the graveyard of all my stuff,” she said. “Along with everyone else’s. I immediately knew that I wanted to make a movie in a garbage dump.”
Many years after this experience, Cook met with Muniz and connected over a shared interest in garbage’s hidden role in society. Waste Land is unique due to Cook’s role in creating the art that she featured. Though Cook does not appear in the documentary, the project, from the photographs to the film itself, is a combined effort of her and Muniz’s artistic vision.
Muniz’s goal for this project was to showcase the people working within the landfill through his art. He focused on the catadores, a group of people that spend hours in the landfill picking out recyclable materials that can be reused and sold to companies. The presence of these individuals highlights the startling lack of a proper recycling system in the area, hinting at a larger ecological problem.
With the help of select members of the association of pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG), Muniz creates massive portraits of the catadores from the very material that they labor every day to collect. One such portrait, depicting ACAMJG co-founder Sebastião Carlos Dos Santos (Tiao) as the famous painting “The Death of Marat,” was sold in a high-end London auction house. The money made through the sale of these portraits was given back to the ACAMJG in order to help them grow their organization and support their members’ dreams. The profits were used to build a daycare and a library for the community. Born in Brazil, Muniz weaves stories of his childhood and his own experience with poverty into the documentary to create a narrative of hope and possibility.
Muniz’s project is incredibly inspiring for its efforts to raise awareness for an often invisible community of people. The project took about three years to complete, during which Muniz formed strong connections with the catadores. At the end of the documentary, he mentions that it was surprisingly difficult to return to everyday life. It is evident that the pickers of recyclable materials left a strong impact on Muniz just as he had an incredible influence on their own lives. Many of the catadores who had their images made into artwork became very emotional upon seeing the final product. Muniz’s project helped them to see themselves in a new light. They were no longer invisible, they had been made into works of art for the world to see.
As a documentary Waste Land adds further depth to Muniz’s project, showcasing the individuals behind the project. The audience is able to observe how participating in the art project changed the catadores’ mindsets. For one woman, in particular, working on the project transformed the way she viewed herself, giving her a new sense of confidence and self-worth. Learning about the lives of these people through the documentary and being able to witness their emotional journey adds even more complexity and meaning to Muniz’s work. The art helped draw public attention to the catadores, but Waste Land allowed the audience to see them as human beings. Together the photographs and documentary give a new light to the way the viewer looks at garbage and landfills. Waste Land is a heartwarming and uplifting documentary about creating beauty and purpose out of even the bleakest of situations.