by contributor Donna Shor
Photo credit: Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio
The mountain covered 326 acres, was built of 12 towering layers, provided a livelihood to 1,700 people—and stank to high heaven. (director Lucy Walker behind camera shown above)
Even Rio de Janeiro’s famed statue, Christ the Redeemer, which spreads welcoming arms to the sprawled city below, has its back to Jardim Gramacho. The title “Jardim” was a wry joke. The word means “garden” in the Portuguese language spoken in Brazil, and this was no garden; it was a trash dump.
The mountain and its garbage pickers are the subjects of “Waste Land,” the major-film-festival award-winning Oscar-nominated documentary. It was shown to a mesmerized audience at the Meridian International Center as part of the Global Perspective Film Series. Hosting was Dr. Curtis Sandberg, Vice President for Arts and Cultural Projects of the Center who led the discussion of the film along with Philippa Hughes.
Philippa Hughes, a lawyer turned art collector, has been described as an art activist for her work in spotlighting young artists, helping them reach wider audiences. Creative and innovative, she organizes large public events, and is known for her art-focused parties, and their unexpected themes and venues.
Dr. Sandberg, who holds a BA in classical archaeology and a PhD in anthropology from Harvard, is a witty and eclectic scholar. He has been just as likely to turn up at a Middle Eastern dig as to appear in Beijing, as he did this May, with a Meridian Center exhibition he organized, “Jam Session: America’s Jazz Ambassadors Embrace the World.”
With “Waste Land,” which Huffington Post dubbed “The Slumdog Millionaire of documentaries,” director Lucy Walker has given us an unforgettable film, which with laughter and tears shows us the resilience of the human spirit. (Luckily, it is available on DVD if you missed it at the movie houses.)
The film tells the story of the “catadores,” the men and women who picked through Rio’s dripping garbage, searching for metal, glass or plastic they could sell, swatting flies and shoo-ing away the vultures swooping overhead as they worked.
Each day as many as 900 trucks dumped here, with pickers swarming about each new load. It was back-breaking, filthy work in Brazil’s heat, but some of the stronger men earned more than five times the average laborers wage, in this city where jobs were scarce or non-existent. Often catadores lived at the dump; Jardim Gramacho became their life.
All that changed when a recognized artist, Brazilian-born Vik Muniz, left his Brooklyn home for Rio to find and portray the workers on the mountain. Enthusiastic and kind, Vik won their trust. He originally planned to photograph them, and then complete the works. Suddenly both he and the catadores were “painting with trash,” filling in the outlines of his photographs they posed for and now helped assemble.
The pickers were happy with the extra money he paid them for their time and materials they found.
They gradually understood and appreciated the art works they and Vik were bringing to life. Opened up by the act of creation, they began expressing themselves in many ways.
The day pretty, twenty-three year old Isis broke down she told how the death of her baby boy led her to working on the mountain. In her portrait, she is hunched over an ironing board, in a pose echoing a work by Picasso.
The group’s intellectual, Zumbi― who read every book he could find in the trash and created a lending library in his shack—worked on his image as Millet’s “Sower.” Jovial Magna, with her head scarf and bangle earrings, was captured in a broadly smiling earth-mother portrait. (She has said “Jardim Gramacho is better for me than turning tricks at Copacabaña would be!”) Nineteen year-old Suellem, a picker since she was fifteen, posed as a Madonna. Tiaö, the leader of the group, slumped in a tub found in the trash, re-created the death scene of Marat, a leader of the French Revolution, assassinated in his bath.
We see the catadores excited response at the premier show in Rio, gazing in wonderment and pride at their gallery-hung works. After more exhibits around Brazil, Vik Muniz decided it was time for the paintings to be seen in London, put up at a major auction house, and took Tiaö along to see how the creations might fare.
There are tense moments at the auction. The works after all, are garbage and Tiaö an unknown.
As the bidding begins on his “painting” his face shows that these opening bids are higher than he could ever have dreamed. When the gavel finally comes down, the winning bid has reached $50,000, and he is in tears, hugging Vik in disbelief and joy. Back in the Jardim, everyone is in shock at the unheard of sum.
Tiaö donated much of his auction money to the ACAMJG, the pickers association he has formed. “I want to give back,” he says. A truck was bought, a computer room installed, and a training center begun. But eventually, new plans had to be made. The long-threatened end of Jardim Gramacho approached and 1,700 people were faced with the loss of their income.
With a disastrous lack of urban planning thirty-four years earlier, no liner was put down when the dump began. Every so often, bulldozers were brought in, compacting the mass, and a deep layer of soil was laid over each succeeding trash layer. Twelve times. Liquid from the rotting mass leaked out, seeping into Guanabara Bay, polluting the water; methane gases from the garbage added to the city’s air pollution. But with the Jardim inactive, that would change. The methane will be harnessed through a pipeline to create energy, heat homes and power cars.
A modern, automatically-sorted trash facility was already in operation when the city finally closed down the dump two months ago, in June 2012. Tiaö has negotiated contracts for ACAMJG pickers, now termed “recyclers,” to work on city trash pickups. The city is giving cash settlements, an important temporary stop-gap. Coca Cola is helping with grants: new trucks have been bought for ACAMJG.
The group has won the contract for picking up the massive trash to result from the 2014 Olympic Summer Games in Rio.
Much has changed for the catadores; especially their estimate of their own self-worth. With the recognition granted their artworks and the release of the film, the pickers gained a sense of stature. Instead of feeling stigmatized and helpless, they have become aware of possibilities beyond Gramacho, daring to believe they can make things happen. Several pickers have aspired to regular jobs, and won them, entering the workforce, able to buy homes. There are hardship cases, and donations are helping them transition.
For the catadores, these new attempts to enter Rio’s mainstream also revived old worries. In the past, whenever they have ventured beyond Gramacho, pickers have been conscious that outsiders might be turned off by a lingering smell, or disgust at their profession. By the time the film is over, we understand them well, appreciating their struggles and motivations. As Dr. Sandberg phrased it: “These are people I‘m not supposed to like. I liked them.”
Philippa Hughes saw the catadores lives as “Affirming the trans-formative powers of art,” adding “This film is itself is a piece of art,” conclusions few would deny.