One Man’s Trash

Four years ago, an artist and a documentary filmmaker started talking garbage. Four days ago, the surprisingly uplifting result of that conversation was presented at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

Waste Land chronicles renowned visual artist Vik Muniz as he travels to Jardim Garmacho, the world’s largest landfill. There he encounters the strange and illusory existence of the catadores, 2,500 men and women who pick recyclable products from the landfill. Helmed in by the sights and smells of Rio de Janeiro’s waste, the individuals of Garmacho are far from the oppressed figures you’d expect: they radiate humor, intelligence, and transcendent physical beauty.

All of which Muniz seeks to capture and transform into artwork over the course of this 90 minute gem of a documentary.

The premise of the artwork is deceptively simple: six catadores are photographed amidst the rubble of Garmacho. Their photographs are projected on a huge scale (roughly 40 by 70 feet) onto the floor of Muniz’s warehouse studio in Rio, then filled in or “painted” with recyclables under Muniz’s direction from an overhead platform.

The filth-covered materials pulled from the landfill by the catadores quite literally become their image. And, gradually, these images become intensely beautiful. Once complete, they are photographed for exhibition.

While the process of building these spectacular art pieces is fascinating in and of itself, it is the community at the heart of this film that steals the show. Because it’s not fine arts students or eager young assistants crafting the sweeping portraits: it is the subjects themselves.

The film is ultimately a testament to the convergence social work, artwork, eco work, and plain, unhampered human interaction. At its introduction Muniz expresses frustration with the insular nature of the art world, and his desire to make the lives of ordinary people richer and more beautiful. As the catadores in his photographs work alongside him in his studio, we come to see that they are far from ordinary, but that the effect on their lives is every bit as pronounced as Muniz hoped it would be.

The catadores perform an invaluable ecological service Rio de Janeiro, which has no recycling system to speak of. Every day they remove 200 tonnes of recyclable garbage from the landfill, which is equivalent to what a city of 400,000 produces in a year. The importance of their role is obvious, yet working the landfill is so stigmatized that prostitution and drug running are considered preferable vocations.

Finding beauty amidst the trash helps the catadores in Waste Land to articulate the plight but also the pride of their strange community, and hence empower themselves. Ultimately, they are transformed – as is Muniz. As the documentary closes, he wonders who, indeed, benefitted most from the project. Ironically enough, the answer seems immaterial.

All proceeds from Muniz’s artwork have gone directly to ACAMJG (The Association of Catadores of Jardim Garmacho), whose president, Tiao, is a central figure in the film. All prize winnings for the film (currently totaling roughly $300,000 US) have also been donated to the association. The film is not screening again at the VIFF, but will receive theatrical distribution in Vancouver in the near future. Check for details.

2 thoughts on “One Man’s Trash

  1. Steph Bowen.

    This is a thing of beauty. You really captured – and made me feel – the artistic smelliness of this fil and the plight of the Catadores. When Michelle and I were in South America two summers ago, our good friend (and Gumbooteer), Martin Renauld, regaled us with tales of the Buenos Aires “underclass” of garbage scavengers. They’re so organized that they’re unionized. Amazing, I know.

    Anyway, great article. You’re poetic, insightful and well-informed, my friend.

    - JCH

  2. Nice. This is a really important issue tackled wonderfully both by you and the Muniz. Today’s trash heaps will become (are becoming) gold mines of the future. Through the first world’s [over]consumer culture, we’ve left so much value to sit and waste away.

    Check out for other cool artsy uses for abandoned objects :)

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