Located outside Rio de Janeiro, Jardim Gramacho is the world’s largest landfill, collecting an astonishing 70 percent of the city’s garbage, and a full 100 percent from the surrounding suburbs. It isn’t just a dump, it’s a village populated by “pickers” who rummage through the piles for recyclable materials and take their earnings back to families in neighboring shantytowns. Seen from above, the pickers look uncannily like ants on a mound, congregating en masse whenever a dump truck unloads another pile, and scurrying in and out with bags full of bottles and plastic they can turn around for money. On the surface, however, there’s a surprisingly sophisticated, and evolving culture at work, with scrappy laborers trying and succeeding to convert trash into (extremely modest) treasure, and even organizing to their collective benefit.
The compelling documentary Waste Land follows an ideal tour guide through Jardim Gramacho: Vik Muniz, a successful Brazilian artist known for incorporating trash and other unconventional materials into his work. (Muniz has recreated Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa twice, once with peanut butter and again with jelly, and did a series of portraits called “Sugar Children,” made from sugar taken from a plantation that employed the very young.) Muniz’s idea was to photograph pickers from Jardim Gramacho, sell the images at auction, and pump the proceeds back into the community. Lucy Walker’s documentary gives voice to the six subjects of Muniz’s photos, who range from the optimistic leader of a 3,000-person picker-representing organization to a cook who salvages unspoiled meat to feed her fellow workers.
Though narrower in scope and lacking the first-person angle, Waste Land resembles Agnès Varda’s great 2000 documentary The Gleaners & I, particularly in its awe of tough, creative, hard-working people who live on the margins. The dump itself is a marvel to behold, and Moby’s eerie score adds a cinematic ambience that helps relieve some of the stock documentary elements, like the way Muniz’s adventures are sometimes framed like a reality-TV show. It also does Muniz one better by humanizing photographs that are often too aestheticized and unresponsive to how his subjects actually live and work. Waste Land travels to an island populated by society’s discards, and finds a piece of salvation.