Gareth Davies on Waste Land
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish.
We’re all familiar with T.S. Eliot’s magnum opus The Wasteland. But does its message of a planet in decline still resonate with the world we live in now? Yes, says Lucy Walker, and more than ever before. Her new creation, Waste Land, influenced in part by the poem, is a documentary about the world’s largest rubbish dump, Jardim Gramacho of Rio de Janeiro, and the self-appointed catadores (scavengers) who work there. Sifting through the 7,000 tons of Rio’s rubbish deposited there every day, they hope to earn their living by searching out recyclable materials such as cans, bottles, plastic, and paper.
Today almost 20,000 catadores live at the site, scavenging 200 tons of waste a day. Entirely dependent on an economy based on the trade of recyclable materials, they have extended the life of the landfill site by removing materials that would otherwise have been buried. The catadores might have given Jardim Gramacho the highest rate of recycling in the world, but the fact remains that it is not a sustainable future. Amidst the fear and squalor of Rio, the catadores, half of whom actually live and sleep in the rubbish, choose this career as a last resort. Faced with drug trafficking, prostitution, or garbage as a way of life, they choose garbage.
But don’t be fooled. Waste Land isn’t just a ‘day in the life’ snapshot into the work of the catadores, but an artistic collaboration. It documents the relationship between these rubbish collectors and Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz, who seeks to create portraits of them using the waste materials of the dump – bringing a new meaning to the idea of recycling. Muniz’s use of rubbish as a medium for artistic expression is unconventional to say the least. He explains why it interests him: “The beautiful thing about garbage is that it’s negative; it’s something that you don’t use anymore; it’s what you don’t want to see.”
In fact rubbish seems a perfect medium for this type of artistic venture – representing a group of ignored and forgotten people through something we “don’t want to see” is both fitting and provocative. Director Lucy Walker remarks that across the way from Jardim Gramacho you can see Christ the Redeemer reaching his arms out to the wealthy south, explaining that “They say even Christ turns his back on the north of Rio, where we are.” Waste Land is not just a project focussed on exposing human and environmental concerns, but as a criticism of the economic disparity in Rio, and the government’s reticence to address the problem of the catadores.
Director of the project Lucy Walker speaks about what influenced her to make this movie, saying: “I have always been interested in garbage. What it says about us. Where it goes and how much of it there is. How it endures. What it might be like to work with it every day.” Speaking on location I hear that answering these questions proved more difficult than anticipated: “just when you get used to the smell they find a human body, or mention a leprosy epidemic, and the sound man passes out… there are so many things to be afraid of, from dengue fever to kidnapping”.
Vik Muniz states that what he really wanted to do with Waste Land was “to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials they use every day”. The portraits Muniz creates from the waste of Jardim Grammacho are sold at auction and all of the profits accumulated are given back to the catadores, to help them build better, safer, sustainable futures for themselves. “I hope the movie serves as a means for us to see our journey to becoming involved with people so far from ourselves,” Walker says, encouraging us to get involved, and take responsibility. By granting the viewer an emotional connection with the catadores, Muniz and Walker are able to demonstrate the transformative power of art, and the alchemy of the human spirit.
Waste Land inspires the viewer to take the time to think about how much waste we generate as individuals, and the effect it has not just upon the environment, but our fellow human beings. “Garbage is the negative of consumer culture”, Walker says, “it’s everything that nobody wants, and when it disappears from everyone’s lives, rich or poor, it doesn’t disappear at all, it appears here.” Muniz and Walker’s project is not just based on recycling waste materials for artistic ends, but encouraging us to recycle our own perceptions of waste, the environment, and the people it affects.
Waste Land is released on 25th February.