Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, portraying Gramacho, also reminded me of ars povera or ‘poor’ or ‘trash’ art, unconventionally and subversively creating beauty with cheap materials. One of the contemporary movement’s practitioners include Vik Muniz, the documentary’s subject. His social project, which he began in 2007, involves returning to his home city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to create art out of the city’s trash, the latter mostly in a landfill called Jardim Gramacho, the name being ironic because this place is no blossoming garden. Muniz’ entrance to Gramacho, the part of the journey with which he has some reservations, is filmed to remind us of dystopic movies like Franci Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, except that this place is real and a necessary evil to our civilization. Walker uses Muniz both as our narrator and stand-in, explaining the landfill’s organized chaos and just as what he says about the smell, we start to get used to it.
Waste Land is an interesting look within an artist and his collaborators, as Muniz works with unlikely extra pairs of hands. The magic of shaping and the documenting of the product doesn’t happen until the movie’s last thirty-five minutes. So basically the first hour is preparation, talking to the one of the leaders of the worker’s association that represents them, taking pictures of the selected few workers who will end up being his models and apprentices. This is part of Muniz’ goal, to expose the workers into another world instead of he assumes is their sad routines.
The movie shows Muniz and his pieces as both poignant and kitschy, using materials like peanut butter to recreate canonized paintings like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. He finds this complementary spirit through working with the garbage pickers/recyclists/catadores. For example the union leader Tiao who, with an improvised set consisted of a bathtub, is photographed as Marat. This is telling of his and the workers’ elevated self-image and unorthodox experience with intellectualism, heightened by Muniz’ presence. Tiao, Zumba and the other workers have literally created a library out of discarded books, a comment on the middle class indifference to the experiences for which the workers would strive. This unlikely mixture of mindsets and class evokes ars povera’s manifesto, but the realism within depicting these workers’ lives adds a social and emotional aspects of a creative process.