Documentary Chronicles Vik Muniz’s Artistic Adventures in World’s Largest Garbage Dump

“What I really want to do is change the lives of a group of people using the material they use everyday.” From the mouth of a another world-famous artist, this statement could come off as conceited, calculating, and delusional, but when uttered by Vik Muniz, it’s a matter-of-fact description of his next project: journeying to the world’s largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, to collaborate with the catadores that pick the recyclable materials from the mounds of trash. Waste Land, which opens today at New York’s Angelika Film Center, follows Muniz from his Brooklyn home base to his native Brazil and the Jardim Gramacho landfill. Immersing himself in the community of catadores, he finds a way to make work about work and learns the difference between garbage and junk.

Director Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground, Blindsight) wanted to make a movie in a garbage dump since an eye-opening visit to New York’s Fresh Kills landfill during her grad student days at NYU, she explained (dressed in a trash bag frock of her own design) at the film’s premiere this week at the Paley Center for Media. Jardim Gramacho was one of few landfills where drug traffic was under control and the workers were being organized into a co-operative by a charismatic young leader. “We were all very nervous—there were so many things to be afraid of, from dengue fever to kidnapping—but we all wanted to go,” she said. Muniz, Walker, and co-producers Angus Aynsley and Peter Martin arrived in Rio (with kidnap insurance) in August 2007. Filming stretched over almost three years.

Viewers watch as Walker quickly masters the problems of scale that go along with filming in a vast landscape in which approximately 1,300 bucket-toting individuals harvest 200 metric tons of recyclables daily. Moving from panoramas that capture the hive of human activity that is Jardim Gramacho, she focuses on Muniz’s progress in building the relationships that are at the core of the project. Armed with a still camera of his own, Muniz snaps portraits that he will ultimately collaborate with the catadores to recreate (on a jumbo scale) in a nearby warehouse using a four-ton cache of recyclables plucked from the landfill. “This idea of ‘the human factor,’ about scales in portraiture, and distances in getting to know people, is what the movie about, for me,” says Walker. “And Vik, as an artist, plays between these levels of proximity and distance, between showing the viewer the material and showing them the idea…You can view things close in or further away. Likewise, you can fear people from afar or you can go interact with them.”

Muniz went on to consign the works he created in Rio to Phillips de Pury, and 100% of the $64,000 they fetched at auction went to the catadores‘ association. “The film was just the beginning,” Muniz said after the screening on Tuesday, adding that the project brought greater visibility to the class of the catadores and has also been instrumental in the organization and funding of recycling cooperatives throughout Brazil. “Tiao [the leader of the catadores‘ association] called me the other day and said, ‘Vik, all these magazines and media people are calling me asking about art,” and I told him, ‘Hey, they’re all calling me and asking about garbage.'” As for regrets, Muniz could only think of one. “This should have been a scratch n’ sniff movie.”