Ten Square Miles

An Environmental Activism Resource

Category: Waste Land

Wasteland (2010)

Wasteland, directed by Lucy Walker, is a documentary that was released in 2010. It featured Vik Muniz, an artist that combines photography with everyday objects and materials to create multidimensional art.  The entire documentary focuses on one of Vik Muniz’s projects involving the workers of the largest garbage dump in the world, Jardim Gramacho, which is in his native country of Brazil.  In Brazil, Muniz discovers and learns about the people who pick through the garage to find recyclables.  As the documentary goes on, it shifts from the artwork to each individual as s/he tells his or her own personal story.  Tiaõ, Zumbi, Suelem, Isis, Irma, Valter, and Magna, all let the filmmakers into their homes and hearts. At the beginning of the film Vik Muniz states his mission with the project; he vows to try to help change the catadores’ (garbage pickers) life through art. Together with the filmmakers, along with the production companies Almega Projects and O2 Filmes, Muniz sets out to make this mission a reality.

This film has a chronological structure, starting with the Vik Muniz’ thesis and ending with a conclusion on his mission.  The documentary starts out by introducing Vik Muniz along with his background and previous art projects.  As the documentary progresses it introduces Muniz’s new project idea to use garbage in his upcoming art pieces.  It shows Muniz’s point of view by showing him not only explaining his project to other but also debating about whether his mission to change lives through artwork was actually plausible. By doing this the documentary subliminal encourages the audience to see the world through Muniz’s shoes, in other words, to feel connected to him.  It is a powerful approach because it appeals to the audience’s emotion and gets them invested before the documentary’s main story even starts. The beginning of the film also included Vik Muniz’s first impressions of the catadores, he predicted that most of them would be depressed and drug addicts.  This was important to include because it contrasted with what many of the catadores personal stories.  Most of the catadores had pride in their work because it was honest and didn’t involve drugs or prostitution. Vik Muniz at first generalized them based off their situation and location; however, the documentary proved that the catadores weren’t perfect, they weren’t exactly overjoyed but they weren’t terribly depressed. They were just people, people trying to make a living like everyone else in the world. So the juxtaposition of those two narrations were important because it emphasized the point that at the end of the day people are just trying to survive, and that everyone has a range of personal obstacles and experiences.

Wasteland (2010) has a good mixture of shots.  Although the frames were obviously planned out, the cinematography as a whole was simple, and this allowed the audience to focus entirely on the interviewed catadores. The filmmakers captured the reality and entirety of dumps while complimenting those shots with shots of the homes of the workers.  This style allowed the audience to see the catadores for their entirety; it didn’t just show their work but also their homes, neighborhoods, families and hopes.  As a result of this, the catadores aren’t dehumanized as workers that go unnoticed but instead as whole human beings who are relatable. Unlike Home (2009), directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, which portrayed groups of people as nameless masses without a voice, in Wasteland (2010) the people were up close, outspoken and real.  Since the objective of the artist was to change the catadores lives, the fact that he focuses mostly on their stories is effective because it helps others sympathize and want to help as well.  Watching Muniz’s journey, hearing the people’s voices and seeing their faces of joy when the artwork was finished was inspirational.  It is obvious by his reaction that Vik Muniz felt good about helping them and the film makes other want to reach out as well. This documentary portrays helping people as rewarding, which motivates audiences to follow suit.

Official trailer for Wasteland (2010): https://vimeo.com/16290358 







A Response to Waste Land

Waste Land is a documentary made in 2010 about Vik Muniz and his activism through art as well as the garbage pickers that construct the art. This documentary is highly performative because of Muniz’s personal stake in the work. Having grown up poor, Muniz’s purpose in the film is not only to create art and raise awareness for the dangerous nature of garbage picking and the squalor in which some people live, but also to give back to individual people and to try to change a few lives through art.

The film itself is very beautiful visually. The idea that art can be used as a mode of social change is not a new one, but certainly it was lovely to incorporate the art into the lives of the pickers. While the film may not be overtly environmental, the fact that the subject matter is based on the largest landfill in Brazil means that the subtext is consistently environmental which makes it even more impactful than if the focus has been environmental. Rather than looking at the effect to the Earth as most environmental documentaries do, it focuses on the effect to the humans of the Earth, the way it affects their socioeconomic status and health. It is often difficult to identify with traditional environmental documentaries specifically because of that lack of human connection. Establishing a human presence as the center of the film makes it easier to connect on the environmental issues it presents.

Muniz establishes early on that his focus of the art is to create change in the lives of individual garbage pickers. However, the purpose of the documentary is more unclear. The proceeds of the art itself go to the pickers, but what about the documentary? Is it for publicity? Is it to raise awareness? Vik Muniz’s overwhelming presence in the film makes it seem to be for publicity, something that comes across as self-centered, as though Muniz has some sort of savior complex.

The interviews and stories of the garbage pickers are the most effective part of the documentary, even more so than the art. Learning the stories of the pickers, their personal struggles, is not only a powerful motivating factor for social change, but also provides important environmental commentary. The people who work amongst the garbage, collecting recyclables, know better than anyone the damaging and wasteful effects consumerism has on our planet and hearing their testimony about their work is moving. It is difficult to say what exactly Muniz’s environmental message is. Though the pickers have an obvious love and appreciation for the environment, many hate their job. In the end the landfill closes, leaving the garbage to go somewhere else, and the art made simply becomes another part of the consumerist culture many of the picker’s warn against. The environmental message of the film, when examined closely, becomes rather hypocritical. How can someone make an art piece than condemns the consumerist culture that creates landfills and fills the Earth with trash only to turn around and sell that art piece, allowing yet more people to become an active part of the consumer culture?

Despite Muniz’s best intentions, there is a moral issue with the film. Garbage picking is a difficult and dangerous line of work, but for many, it is their only way to get by. Muniz takes people from that work for several weeks to create art from that garbage. Afterwards, most of those people don’t want to go back to garbage picking. My biggest dilemma with the film is the question of, is it moral, is it right, to remove people from their work, the way they support themselves, and show them a more beautiful, easier, cultural world  knowing that they will have to return to the garbage? Of course, the pickers have a course of whether or not they want to participate, but is it right of Muniz to ask in the first place when he can give them little else than a few weeks of freedom?

Another issue I took with the film was the performative nature of it. The focus of the film seemed to be more on Muniz and less on the people he was supposedly trying to help. The film read more as a misguided attempt at a personal charity mission to make himself feel better. In the end, the work of the garbage pickers is displayed in an upscale gallery surrounded by upper class people, many of whom have never experienced and can never understand the poverty these people experience. The first image one sees upon entrance into the gallery is, in fact, a picture of Muniz’s face, essentially taking complete credit for the weeks of work these pickers did. That being said, the large print of his photograph was sold and the money given to the subject of the photo which was a beautiful work of charity. It would have been more effective if the film was used less for personal publicity and more as an actual means of change.

Waste Land is an entertaining film and on the surface seems like an effective environmental piece, but when examined closer falls short in many areas. The formal elements such as personal interviews and stories, cinematography, editing are all well- constructed and thoughtful, but the message of the film is unclear and, at times, hypocritical. It seems to condemn a consumerist culture only to promote it in the end and Muniz seems to use the documentary more for publicity than for real social activism.

Waste Land Film Response

Waste Land is a British-Brazilian documentary by Lucy Walker about Vik Muniz and his work as an artist. It was released in 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to win many awards. Vik travels around the world making art and this film concentrated on how he created a series using garbage. He collaborated with trash pickers at the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, and tried to show the world their struggles while helping these people. This film is similar to Manufactured Landscapes because it shows his work and his process, but it feels different because it is filled with people and their interactions, giving it a more human feeling. It has to be said however, that it still promotes Vik Muniz because he explicitly says he wants to do his next series with garbage, and it makes the viewer wonder if he genuinely wants to help these people or is just doing it for the film and publicity.

The film is structured around Vik and the friendships he makes with the trash pickers. On his initial journey to Jardim Gramacho, he takes photos of various random people there. He also captures them on camera. Later, a few of these people return to help Vik create his art as his models and assistants. I believe he picked the people with a good personality and story to play into viewer’s emotions and draw empathy. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but something I think happened because he ignores many of the other trash pickers. Compared to Burtynsky’s film, this film was filled with emotion and humor because of the people in it. It was definitely

more enjoyable and I also think it had a more pronounced impact. In terms of which documentary style is better to either promote or display, Waste Land is a better example.

While Vik has to be credited for helping these people escape the landfills for a while and getting them money, he also promotes himself and the film makes him seem like a savior. I believe the real hero of the film is Tiaõ due to his work before the film and also after. He is working to save people from working in the landfill their whole life and also trying to help raise awareness about garbage. Trying to prevent garbage reaching the landfill will help lead to it shutting down, which it eventually did. He also wanted to help educate the workers so that after it closed, they would be able to go into the world prepared. Though Vik was very important and raising awareness and profits for them, Tiaõ did all the hard work. I’m not saying that Vik’s art isn’t hard for him to do, but it isn’t the same as the work Tiaõ has to do.

I thought this film was good to watch because on the surface it seemed very good overall but once you started to look into it you could see some flaws and raise some questions. This leads to good discussions and more awareness about the problems in the film. It didn’t tell the viewer there was a problem and then put solutions at the end, rather it told the story of the fight that people go through every day. It also was a social commentary about consumerism because if we didn’t buy all the things we don’t need and throw away, there wouldn’t be giant landfills. It was eye opening and makes you think how our society evolved into what it is today.

Waste Land: A review

Waste Land is very much not a film about an environment expressly, but the impact of an environment on the people who are forced to live there either by social restraints or economic considerations.  The environment in question is a massive dump in Brazil outside Rio de Janeiro.  Pickers are collectors who salvage and collect recyclable materials from the dump for a commission.  It seems like it would just be easier to collect recyclables on their own, but he cultural relativism is an intense mistress.  Anyway, the workers at this dump are horribly mistreated by the highly classist society that emerged in Brazil following independence and a long history with slavery and by the corrupt government that largely ignores their plights such as poverty and disease. 

     Enter in our hero, Vik Muniz, a popular Brazilian photographer bent on using his art to make these peoples lives better.  He achieves this by taking portraits, then reconstructing the portraits out of the very trash the pickers collect.  The art sells well, and the pickers’ union gets well needed support to help the workers transition out of working in the dump and into better jobs. 

     The cinematography and work of Muniz highlights this connect between the people and the dirty land.  Many of the establishing shots of the dump show the pickers to be little more than small insects crawling around on the massive piles of never ending trash flowing into the dump.  Even their cloths, dirty from working in the dump, match the huge piles of trash.  However, this connection created by the cinematography quickly vanishes after half through the film when we start to pick out each individual picker’s story on why they work for the dump, their hopes dreams, etc.  We gain personal access to what they call home and their families to further understand the climate these pickers inhabit.  Many of the lives are equally as chaotic and  horrible as the dump they work in.  The camera work also highlights an omniscient point of view, which removes Muniz as our main viewpoint, freeing us to better understand the climate and environment of the slums of Brazil.                 

     The message of the film seems to be that on the end of this massive consumerist machine is nothing but continued exploitation and devastation.  Repeatedly throughout the film, the pickers’ lives are shown to be stressful, painful existences only further worsened  by their socio-economic situation.  Their pleas to improve their lot are routinely ignored by those in power to ensure they can continue to be exploited.  In the end, this is not a life fit for a human being.  The environment, destroyed by man’s compulsive need to create and consume, returns to ruin the lives of those too unfortunate or powerless to do anything about it.  The tragedy of the stories of those in the film is as heart breaking as it is revealing of out modern economy.  As a piece of activism, Waste Land is effective at calling emotions to sympathize for the weak and broken.  This rallying call is used to empower the broken.  It may not be a literal message since many are not photographers and don’t speak Portuguese.  However, the film demands that we treat those who slave and soldier for us in the trenches of poverty and exploitation with the respect and decency that they deserve, and if we don’t, then we will lose those innocent people to our compulsive ignorance.            

WASTE LAND – A Response

Waste Land was a look at the project a Brazilian photographer, Vik Muniz took on a few years ago. He made portraits of workers who search through the world’s largest landfill for recyclable materials. He would take a picture of them imitating some other famous work, or just in their own environment, and the workers themselves would use the recyclable materials to make a rendition of the portrait. This is a film that is primarily a social documentary, but becomes very environmental given that these workers are immersed in environmental degradation and pollution. It takes an anthropological approach to documentary, studying a particular culture, the culture of recyclable material collectors. It takes an in depth look at their lives and how much this project changed them.

Throughout the film, the filmmaker uses very informal interviews to delve into the people of the film. There are only a few times the interviews are set up in the typical angle and fashion of documentary. The camera acts intimately, capturing very emotional moments for the workers and for Vik. The filmmaker is only shown or heard once, when she is discussing with Vik the impact this project has on the workers, and whether that is actually for better or for worse. The style of cinematography evokes this raw emotion and in depth look as the viewer can truly feel like they are in the room with the people in the documentary.

It looks very at how environmental degradation interacts with poverty and classism. While the work at the landfill gives these workers a job outside of drug dealing and prostitution, it still pays about the same, and the environmental toll ruins these people’s health. An example is Valter, a veteran recyclables collector who died of cancer shortly after the film from toxins and carcinogens from the landfill. Keeping that landfill near that town also allows for a lot of pollution to harm these people, but they cannot work or live anywhere else because of their economic background.

In terms of its effectiveness in activism, I don’t think it was necessarily made for the purpose of environmental activism, though Vik’s project using garbage definitely was. Using trash to create portraits is a very obvious take of irony at the overproduction of waste. Just looking at this massive landfill of garbage from all over Brazil gives you perspective on how much waste we produce and the effect that has on people and the way they live. It is also very much a social documentary, taking an intimate, sympathetic look at the effects of poverty on people’s lives.

Overall, this film was very much a heart warming, emotionally compromising documentaries. Its approach at looking at everyday people and their contribution to the environment in a complex manner is something truly valuable that many films don’t always achieve. It’s a film that sucks you in and spits you back out, wishing the best for all these people you’ve never met before, and a hope for when their jobs don’t have to involve the taking apart of our consumerist trash.

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