Directed by Lucy Walker, the film Wasteland successfully introduces the topic of waste disposal and the social and environmental issues that go hand in hand with it. Heartfelt and otherworldly, the film follows artist Vik Muniz as he attempts to create works out of the unconventional materials found in the world’s largest landfill; Jardim Gramacho located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Muniz’s chooses a few workers to use as his subject matter and through their collaboration, just like the materials they scavenge for, their personal stories of how they came to work there and what keeps them surface.
Many of the workers justify their occupation as helping the environment stay a bit healthier for future generations. Every day these pickers risk their health and lives pulling out 200,000 tons of recyclable material from the 7,000 thousand tons of garbage dumped in this area 24 hours a day. Make no mistake; while this is a feat in itself the reality of the situation is that this lifestyle is an alternative to falling into the traps of drug trafficking or prostitution. Too often, people find themselves in this occupation due to a bad chain of events that strip them of a higher social economic position. In addition, they are exposed to a lot of strange and grim things in the dump. They are unable to be with their families for long periods of time. They are social out-casts because of the way they smell and look. They are, for the most part, restricted to a life with a bleak future.
Even still, the film is crafted to show how people are able to adapt in any situation. Some of the most powerful instances on tape were initiatives set forth by the workers themselves. For instance, a man named Zumbi helped found the workers association that provides representation for the pickers and tries to get them better treatment. He explains how they initially had trouble gaining support within the community and by government officials but with a perceiving spirit they have been able to have rallies, build paved roads, and install a sewage system. The sense of community has become so strong now that people are freely giving their blood to one another in emergencies. In addition, the workers are also portrayed as ultra sensitive to consumption and the affects of being wasteful. They would find jewels in the piles of trash and salvage them to use in their own homes. They would take discarded safe food off incoming trucks and create nutritious meals for each other. They were even able to start a collection of discarded books in hopes of creating a library and educating themselves.
In many respects, I was skeptical of this film and whether or not it was just functioning to exploit/romanticize the thriftiness of these people. I questioned whether the filmmaker or Vik Muniz realized their privilege when entering this space and how this film can be used as a teaching tool. For instance, towards the end Muniz ends up photographing the pickers, creating large-scale portraits of them, selling them at auction and giving all the proceeds raised back to the pickers so they could improve their lives. While the motive came from a good place, I wondered if it was really okay to introduce these people to a different lifestyle and then just return them back to the dump. Would it potentially make them feel even more trapped? The instance that caused me to lose my skepticism was toward the end of the film when one of the women who had participated explained how the experience made her feel. She said, “sometimes we see our selves as so small but people out there see us as big, so beautiful.” In this statement, I realized that it did not matter whether these outsiders were able to offer her a long time solution or any solution. The fact that she could now be acknowledged by the world for her life, for her work, and as something that was human was something that was both gratifying and validating for her.
The thing to take away from this is that when it comes to filming documentaries, creating community engagement programs, or making any other type of observation a critical consciousness of one owns position is needed. The territory of retelling or passing on testimonies and communities of memory can be risky because if you do not understand a peoples’ story or if you are not running the same risk the danger lies in you misrepresenting them and potentially subjecting them to harm instead of liberation.