Brazilian artist Vik Muniz works with “natural materials” such as sugar and garbage. He has been so successful that he has relocated his studio to New York, but in 2005, he decides it is time to give something back to the country where he grew up poor. He picks as his subject the largest landfill in the world, Jardim Gramacho, an island just outside Rio de Janeiro, where hundreds of humans comb through the newly arrived trash.
At first, his main concern is for his own welfare. Would it be safe to work there?
When he arrives at Jardim Gramacho, he is quite surprised that the pickers.turn out to be the perfect subjects for his art. Far from being abject poor, struggling to live off of the garbage, they are honest workers collecting plastic and metal to recycle and earning $20 to $25 a day for their labor. Most of them found their way there through unemployment. Although it took a “while to get used to the smell,” most of them don’t even notice after a while and Muniz goes through the same process.
In fact, their occupation is not only honest, it provides decent livings for most of them in this impoverished land, and it contributes environmentally as well. Followed by documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker, Vik spends a great deal of time interviewing and getting to know the catadores, choosing seven men and women to work with specifically as his subjects, including a man named Tiao who has organized the workers into an association. As representative of the catadores, he lobbies the government to make sure that they are provided for and that laws enacted for the improvement of their neighborhoods are carried out. A friend of his picks up books from the dump and they are collecting them to form a community library.
Posing Tiao as Jean Paul Marat, in an abandoned bathtub found at the dump, Muniz shoots photographs, then he systematically goes through the catadores that he has selected and puts them in famous poses. Hiring them away from the dump, he brings them a warehouse where their photos are projected from a height onto the floor. The workers then select garbage and use it to create the picture over the projection. Muniz then takes photographs of the picture made of garbage.
Flying Tiao to Berlin, he watches as the photograph is sold at auction for an astounding price and all of the money goes back to the association to help the catadores to expand their center, buy computers and begin teaching adults and children how to build a better life for themselves. Sale of the art raises over $250,000 for the catadores.
The experience is transformative for all of the workers as they try to make better lives for themselves and their children. The association expands into a major recycling player in Brazil.
Walker does a masterful job of assembling this film, creating a work that is in itself transformative. What started out as a film about a socially conscious artist turns out to be about a people who learn, grow and make better lives for themselves.
This is a truly powerful film that accumulates emotional punch as it develops until by the end, the viewer is pulled deeply into the lives of the catadores. Sometimes all it takes is one person who cares deeply about something to make the world a better place and in this regard both Vik Muniz and Lucy Walker elevate the world around them, using as their tools human beings, cast-offs from society, and their art.
To enjoy more, please visit Artsy’s Vik Muniz page: https://www.artsy.net/artist/vik-muniz.