“What I really want to do is change the lives of a group of people using the material they use everyday.” From the mouth of a another world-famous artist, this statement could come off as conceited, calculating, and delusional, but when uttered by Vik Muniz, it’s a matter-of-fact description of his next project: journeying to the world’s largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, to collaborate with the catadores that pick the recyclable materials from the mounds of trash. Waste Land, which opens today at New York’s Angelika Film Center, follows Muniz from his Brooklyn home base to his native Brazil and the Jardim Gramacho landfill. Immersing himself in the community of catadores, he finds a way to make work about work and learns the difference between garbage and junk.
Director Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground, Blindsight) wanted to make a movie in a garbage dump since an eye-opening visit to New York’s Fresh Kills landfill during her grad student days at NYU, she explained (dressed in a trash bag frock of her own design) at the film’s premiere this week at the Paley Center for Media. Jardim Gramacho was one of few landfills where drug traffic was under control and the workers were being organized into a co-operative by a charismatic young leader. “We were all very nervous—there were so many things to be afraid of, from dengue fever to kidnapping—but we all wanted to go,” she said. Muniz, Walker, and co-producers Angus Aynsley and Peter Martin arrived in Rio (with kidnap insurance) in August 2007. Filming stretched over almost three years.