Film Chronicles Artist's Work From Rio Dump

In the documentary Waste Land, director Lucy Walker chronicles the creation of a work of art by Vik Muniz made with objects from a landfill in Rio de Janeiro. The garbage dump receives more tons of trash every day than any other dump in the world. It serves Rio de Janeiro and its closest suburb — the richest and the poorest trash mixes in the same dump. A Brazilian now based in Brooklyn, Muniz works with some of the 3,000 pickers who make their living scavenging at the dump.

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We end this hour with the busiest landfill in the world. It's in Rio de Janeiro. Nearly 3,000 struggling Brazilians make their living by foraging for recyclables there. Internationally acclaimed artist Vik Muniz, a Brazilian based in New York, decided to turn their lives and their work into a work of art, and filmmaker Lucy Walker decided to make a movie about it. Her prize-winning documentary "Waste Land" opens in theaters today.

Pat Dowell has the story.

PAT DOWELL: Vik Muniz is known for working with unusual materials - sugar, chocolate syrup, car parts, toy soldiers - to create portraits and re-stagings of famous paintings. He then photographs his constructions. In 2006, he turned to garbage.

Mr. VIK MUNIZ (Artist): Garbage is something that you're always trying to hide. It's supposed to be non-visual. And to make art with something that you're always trying not to see seemed like an interesting proposition for me.

DOWELL: Early in Lucy Walker's film, Muniz says he wanted to do more than create art out of garbage. He wanted to use the materials that people deal with every day to change their lives.

Mr. MUNIZ: My experience with mixing art with social projects is that that's the main thing. It's just like taking people away for - even if it's for a few minutes, away from where they are, and showing them another world, another place, even if there is a place from which they can look at where they are.

DOWELL: And where these Brazilians were - the suburban Rio dump called Jardim Gramacho - was a profoundly shocking thing to see, says Lucy Walker.

Ms. LUCY WALKER (Filmmaker): The people are right in the garbage, which you think is the most - and it is in fact - the most dangerous place to be. And they're just sort of stepping in it and sort of diving on the garbage the second that the giant trucks tilt and these incredible volumes of garbage slide down.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Waste Land")

DOWELL: Filmmaker and artist were surprised at the level of camaraderie and the level of organization of the pickers - catadores in Portuguese. They've formed their own cooperative to sell what's recyclable to wholesalers. But they keep things too - food, clothes, furniture. One man saves all the books he finds and wants to start a library at the cooperative, whose young leader reads them.

(Soundbite of documentary, "Waste Land")

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

DOWELL: He says he likes Machiavelli, and he really, really likes Nietzsche. And he became one of the artist's subjects. Vik Muniz posed the pickers, photographed them and then projected the photographs from 65 feet up in a warehouse, covering the floor. He directed the pickers from above as they filled in the contours and shading of their portraits with broken treasures from the trash.

Filmmaker Lucy Walker initially imagined she would use the music of Brazil in her film but ultimately went in the opposite direction - using the otherworldly atmospheres of Moby instead.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WALKER: To have imposed some sort of Brazilian music would be as artificial as anything else. These are human beings confronting waste, and there's no music in that situation for them.

DOWELL: Moby, a friend of Walker's for 20 years, says he did not compose new music for the film. He offered his entire catalog and told her to use anything she wanted.

MOBY (Musician): She dug really deep and going into some very obscure B sides that I had made that had only been released in Europe and found a lot of very obscure cinematic music that I had made that had never actually appeared in movies.

DOWELL: And what makes music cinematic?

MOBY: For me, to use cinematic as an adjective, especially applied to music that hasn't appeared in movies, for me, what that means is music that instantly transforms the space in which it's being listened to.

DOWELL: It does, says Vik Muniz.

Mr. MUNIZ: Being at Gramacho at night is an amazing experience. And there's one part of the film where Moby just conveys the exact sense of mystery and a little bit of fright that you feel when you are there at night.

(Soundbite of music)

DOWELL: The landfill and its workers are a little less scary to Brazilians, thanks to the popularity of this film and the exhibition of the portraits the pickers helped Muniz make. Sales of some of the photographs raised about a quarter of a million dollars for the catadores' cooperative.

The question of whether their collaboration in this art project changed their lives is not easily answered - most of them went back to work as catadores -but Vik Muniz says they changed him.

Mr. MUNIZ: I didn't know who they were. I didn't know how strong they were, how wonderful they could have been. And my experience with them after three years, you know, turned like these things that were just like ghosts or monsters inside my head. You know, they're my friends now.

DOWELL: The landfill is slated to close in 2012, and Vik Muniz is working with nonprofits in Rio to move the catadores into the workforce, because they have the skills that Brazilians will need as the nation begins household recycling.

For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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