Across the world's largest garbage dump, near Rio de Janeiro, the pickers crawl with their bags and buckets, seeking treasures that can be recycled: plastics and metals, mostly, but anything of value. From the air, they look like ants. You would assume they are the wretched of the earth, but those we meet in "Waste Land" seem surprisingly cheerful. They lead hard lives but understandable ones. They make $20 or $25 a day. They live nearby. They feel pride in their labor and talk of their service to the environment.
While the alleys of Chicago remain cluttered with ugly blue recycling bins that seem to be ignored and uncollected, the pickers rescue tons of recyclables from the dump and sell them to wholesalers, who sell them to manufacturers of car bumpers, cans, plastics and papers. They raise their children without resorting to drugs and prostitution. They have a pickers' association, which runs a clinic and demonstrates for their rights. From books rescued from the dump, one picker has assembled a community library. The head of the association says he learned much from a soggy copy of Machiavelli, once he had dried it out. He quotes from it, and you see that he did.
I do not mean to make their lives seem easy or pleasant. It is miserable work, even after they grow accustomed to the smell. But it is useful work, and I have been thinking much about the happiness to be found by work that is honest and valuable. If you set the working conditions aside (which of course you cannot), I suggest the work of a garbage picker is more satisfying than that of a derivatives broker. How does it feel to get rich selling worthless paper to people you have lied to?
"Waste Land," the documentary by Lucy Walker that has been nominated for an Academy Award this year, takes as its entry point into the lives of the pickers the work of the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz. As a youth, he had the good fortune to be shot in the leg by a rich kid, who paid him off; he used the money to buy a ticket to America, and now he is famous for art that turns garbage into giant constructions that he exhibits and photographs.
Perhaps Walker intended to make the film about Muniz. If so, her subject led her to a better one; as he returns to Rio to photograph pickers for a series of portraits, she begins to focus on their lives. We see where they live, we meet their families, we hear their stories, we learn of the society and economy they have constructed around Jardim Gramacho, the "Garbage Garden." I was especially pleased by a woman named Irma*, who stirs a huge cauldron of beef stew in her outdoor kitchen constructed at the site.
The workers bring her unspoiled meat and usable vegetables, she says, and that is easy to believe if you have ever been to one of the all-meat restaurants facing the Copacabana beach, where the chefs wheel enormous pieces of beef, pork, lamb and poultry from table to table to carve slices and pile them on your plate. The waste here must be considerable.
Muniz has the advantage of speaking the same language as the pickers and having come from poverty. When he tells them his portraits will give them and their work recognition, they agree and are happy to cooperate, especially Tiao, who organized their association. Muniz intends to donate all the proceeds from his portraits to the pickers, which is simple enough, but then he and his wife, Janaina Tschape, have a discussion about whether he should invite Tiao to come along when his portrait is auctioned at Phillips.
Can you leave the life of a picker, fly to another country, stay in luxury and then return to a garbage heap? How do you handle that? It is a matter for endless debate, but eventually Tiao does join Muniz at the action, where his portrait follows an Andy Warhol and wins a bid of $50,000. His reaction is to cry, as Muniz embraces him. He feels this is recognition for his life, for his determination to start the association and for the dignity of his work.
If it makes it difficult for Tiao to return to the garden, well, it was difficult to be there in the first place. Last year, I saw a documentary named "Scrappers," about the men who travel the alleys of Chicago seeking scrap metal. There is also Agnes Varda's great film "The Gleaners and I" (2000), about those who seek their livings in the discards of Paris. When we see men going through the cans in an alley, some of us tend to distrust and vilify them. They are earning a living. They are providing a service. Incredibly, they're sometimes called lazy. Documentaries like these three help us, perhaps, to more fully appreciate our roles as full-time creators of garbage.
*Originally, this review incorrectly identified the woman who cooks as Zumbia. Irma is the cook. We have corrected the text.—Editor
“The really magical things are the ones that happen right in front of you. A lot of the time you keep looking for beauty, but it is already there. And if you look with a bit more intention, you see it.”
Due to an illness, I decided to show the documentary, “Wasteland,” to my intro sociology class last week. “Wasteland” won many awards during 2010 and 2011. It’s perfect for a sociology class or for anyone looking to understand a different culture, interested in inequality and social justice, or who loves artistic endeavors. The video is also a great look at recycling and environmental activism.
Vik Muniz, the artist in the video, is an internationally known artist who left Brazil to go to the United States due to receiving a payment from a person who shot him. In this TED Talk from 2003, Muniz humorously chats about his view of art and his own art specifically. After his success as an artist, he wanted to help others. He decides to return to Brazil, specifically to Jardim Gramacho, a landfill outside of Sao Pablo. He lives among the catadores, or the workers who scavenged the materials for recyclables. The documentary explores why the catadores perform the work they do, as opposed to other jobs. For many, tragedies struck their lives giving them few options. It also notes the activism of the workers to create the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ARPJG) prior to the arrival of Muniz.
As one would expect, the catadores’ views on their situations varied. Some viewed their work with pride, focusing on their important contributions to their community and helping the environment. They were responsible for recycling waste and saving space in the landfill. These workers derived meaning and purpose from their work.
On the other hand, some seemed ashamed. More than once, women pointed out that at least they weren’t working as prostitutes. This reminded me of the concept of “dirty work” in sociology. The concept was created by Everett C. Hughes. Dirty work is socially constructed, meaning that society decides what work is dirty. This concept is about more than just physical dirt. It can also refer to work that a society perceives to be morally suspect. Finally, people that even work to help groups of people seen as stigmatized may be considered to be doing dirty work. Often, to feel respectable, workers completing dirty work will try to avoid their stigmatizing label and legitimize their work to themselves and others. (If you want to read more about this, you can refer this PDF of an analysis of Ashforth and Kreiner’s look at dirty work by Stacy J. Chidaushe.)
While I follow the attempts of some sex workers in the US to define their own lives and refuse to be rescued by other people, I do not know what the experiences of sex workers in the areas of Brazil were like or how they perceived themselves. However, it is interesting to me that these workers that likely had common social class interests. By trying to avoid the stigmatizing label and to appear respectable, the catadores participated in the stigmatization of another group.
For the most part, I feel that the documentary did a good job of showing the daily live of the catadores, in addition to the horrors that they sometimes faced. One woman discussed finding the body of a baby in the refuse. Often, people would dump murder victims in Jardim Garamacho. Yet, there were beautiful moments of love, care, humor, and creativity. One of the catadores was a leader in ARPJG, and he discussed the excitement of finding and reading books.
In the end, Muniz gets the catadores to pose for portraits, some of which were their own ideas. Then, he gets them to help him make huge murals of the portraits using recyclable goods from the landfill. The results were absolutely amazing, and the process seemed to be an empowering one. They take one of portraits to an auction and make $50,000 for the catadores. Of course, this is heartwarming, but I really respect the fact that they address the potential for harm for the catadores by participating in the video. Eventually, Muniz would leave and how would the people’s lives be changed for the better or the worse by the interactions? Often documentaries or journalism provide moments for an audience to enjoy, and then leave the people without any further assistance or even without a follow up.
I found an article from PBS that did address what happened after the video. In 2012, the landfill was closed. The city planned to pay some of the pickers about $7,500 a piece due to the efforts of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho. For the 2014 World Cup, the pickers received contracts to work on recycling. However, to really know what happened to the catadores, a follow up would be needed to see if their conditions are better under these new contracts and payments. “Wasteland” is a great documentary, and although the landfill is no longer there, the concepts relating to dirty work, stigmatization, inequality, and art make it worth watching.