With the Oscars fresh on everyone’s minds, I want to share my thoughts on a movie I recently watched that was also nominated for an Oscar in 2011 in the Best Documentary Feature category. The movie is Waste Land, directed by Lucy Walker.
The movie documents an art project undertaken by Brazilian artist, Vik Muniz, at the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho, located near Rio de Janeiro. Many people work at this landfill, picking out materials that can be sold for recycling.
Vik Muniz’s art is internationally recognized for recreating well-known classics such as Leanardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in unexpected mediums such as chocolate syrup and then photographing the image to produce large prints.
The project featured in Waste Land involved photographing some of the recyclable material pickers working at the landfill, enlarging those photographs, and then “painting” the subjects out of garbage brought from the landfill. He then photographed the images that had been made from the garbage to produce large portraits. The funds from the sale of the art, which totalled $300,000, were donated back to the workers, which they used to purchase equipment and build a resource centre. The first painting from this project was auctioned in London for £50,000. The subject of this painting, Tiao, attended the auction and was overcome with emotion that someone put that much value in the art.
I felt many emotions watching this movie, from despair to inspiration. Despair at the living conditions of the people featured in the movie and inspiration at how they felt about life and themselves. They really felt proud about the work they do. They believe the work reduces the negative environmental impacts of the waste by removing material from the landfill to be remade into a useful product. For many of the pickers, an unfortunate event in their lives such as the death of a parent or spouse left them with very few options to support themselves. They view working as a picker at the landfill as a worthy occupation compared to alternatives such as the drug trade or prostitution. These people are living on the margins and Brazil does not have the social assistance programs that we are fortunate to have in Canada. But it is inspiring how they make the best of their situation.
Tiao has organized the 2,500 pickers by forming the Association of Pickers of Jardim Gramacho which he is now President. Tiao has achieved this accomplishment even though he has no formal education. His grandmother taught him to read and he has learned by reading books that were found in the landfill. He is especially inspired by the writings of Niccolo Machiavelli because he sees similarities between the social and political instability in Florence in the 16th century with the current situation in Rio de Janeiro.
Tiao posed for one of the portraits by recreating the image of the Death of Marat, a French Revolutionary leader who he has read about and whose politics and philosophy have inspired him.
This is a very thought-provoking movie and it made me rethink about my own consumption of materials and the waste that I produce. Do I reduce, reuse and recycle as much as I can? I am sure I can do better.
What one thing can you think of that you could do differently to waste less? To quote one of the pickers in the movie, Valter dos Santos who has worked at the landfill for 26 years: “One single can is of great importance. Because 99 is not 100, and that single one will make the difference.”
In the movie, it was mentioned that the landfill is scheduled to close in 2012 so I did some research to find out the current situation there. This Youtube news story provides an update about the closure which is to occur in July 2012. The Brazilian government has passed legislation that is to see all the landfills close and be replaced by sanitary landfills with proper environmental controls such as the one here in Halton at the Waste Management Site. Pickers will not be allowed at the landfills, instead a separate recycling collection will be implemented that will transition the pickers from working in the landfills into the new recycling system. Hopefully in the long-term this will lead to a better quality of life for the workers.
Hot Docs will be re-opening the Bloor Cinema in Toronto on Monday, March 12, 2012 with a free screening of Waste Land, or if you are interested in watching this movie it is also available on DVD.