Recyclers Turn Rio 'Waste Land' Into High Art Waste Land tells the story of workers at Brazil's largest garbage dump, who wade through tons of garbage daily looking for recyclable scraps to sell. Director Lucy Walker documented the pickers and artist Vik Muniz, who turned the landfill into the canvas for beautiful art projects made of trash.

Recyclers Turn Rio 'Waste Land' Into High Art

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And now we continue our series with the directors of feature-length documentaries nominated for the Academy Award. Today, "Waste Land," a film that follows Brooklyn-based artist, Vik Muniz, to his home country of Brazil and to the busiest landfill in the world, where almost 3,000 men and women make a living picking through the garbage of Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waste Land")

Mr. VIK MUNIZ (Artist): What I really want to do is to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials that they deal with every day and not just any material. The idea I have for my next series is to work with garbage.

CONAN: Vik Muniz posed the pickers are the subjects of famous paintings, projected a huge image of that picture on a floor where he and the pickers used recyclable materials to mark the contours of their faces and fill in the shadows. Then he took those pictures to an auction house in London.

Unidentified Man: Lot number 272, the great work by Vik Muniz, "Marat Sebastiao Pictures of Garbage." And we will start this at 10,000 pounds, 10,000 pounds...

CONAN: And that particular work eventually sold for $50,000. Lucy Walker directed the film and joins us now from a studio in Los Angeles. Welcome and congratulations on the nomination.

Ms. LUCY WALKER (Director, "Waste Land"): Thank you. Isn't it thrilling?

CONAN: It is. It must be exciting. After all of this work and all of this time, what does an Academy Award nomination mean?

Ms. WALKER: For the people who've been sifting through garbage for recyclable materials, it means an awful lot. They suffer a great deal of ostracization(ph) in Brazil, even though the job that they're doing is a very important job of being environmental stewards. And as we see in the movie, they're so charming and so smart and so brilliant and so resourceful. They're the coolest people I've ever met in my whole life. But I sort of - they suffer, you know, tremendously from prejudice and persecution. It is a dangerous job that they're doing.

The leader of the association of recyclables materials pickers, when he found out that we were nominated, was overjoyed and said, I keep thinking that the clock is going to tick to midnight and I'm going to lose my shoes and things are going to go back to the way they were before the movie. And then he said, but then I remember that they can never go back the same, that this movie has changed everything for the recyclable materials pickers.

And I must say that we're also really thrilled that on Oscar night there's going to be a special screen set up in the landfill, which is the largest landfill in the world, and everyone is going to be able to watch. And then my date we just got a U.S. visa - is going to be this president of the association. He's going to come to Los Angeles this week and be my date for the Oscars. And everyone back home is going to be watching him.

CONAN: There is a poignant moment in the movie where he and one of his other people in the association take out the - go and collect the salaries for all the people who are picking out recyclable materials. And they're held up at gunpoint and they - the $6,000, everybody's money is stolen.

Ms. WALKER: Mm-hmm. And he cries and he says, I can't do this anymore. I don't want to be here anymore. And he's a very positive character, generally. You know, he's tremendously grateful for his life and excited about all that he's achieved. And he's a real wonder. And at that moment where he loses heart, it's really painful. But then he - his portrait is the one that's picked to be auctioned first in London. And he gets to go to London. And then his tears are of joy as the portrait is sold and raises lots of money - so much more money than they lost when they were held up at gunpoint. And so the story is very emotional and full of these amazing people who really, you know, have suffered tremendously. Life has not dealt them easy hands, and yet they're playing them, you know, with such grace and such - there's just a force of inspiration.

And I must say, even today, when I'm looking at the news every day, but perhaps at the moment especially it seems like there's so much scary times and violence and all the things that we worry about in the world, this film is really, I must say, sort of a treasure in the trash. I mean, we didn't set out to make the most inspirational movie ever. It just sort of happened that way, because this artist set out to make a difference. And boy, he really did. You know, he really does change the lives of these people, using the material that they work with every day, using this garbage.

CONAN: Yet there's a debate in the film about how much this project changes the lives of its subjects, the people who pick out recyclable materials there in this unbelievable landscape of garbage in Rio de Janeiro. And there's a clip in the movie, it shows an argument between the director of the studio where they assembled these works, Fabio, Vik and his wife, about the impact of the project.

(Soundbite of movie, "Waste Land")

Mr. FABIO GHIVELDER (Director, Vik Muniz Studio): At the beginning I had, at least I had the impression, and I think now that this is wrong, that they were happy there. And I think it has a lot to do with denial.

Ms. JANAINA TSCHAPE: Well, I think that's exactly where you reach the point, to think - I mean, should you take them to London? I think it's quite - it's a super-delicate question, because (unintelligible). If you're starting to change them already, just bring them to the other studio, just involving them in a different life set in Rio, what's going to happen to them once you take to - you know, put them in a plane?

Mr. MUNIZ: You're saying, oh, this is going to mess up with their minds?

Mr. GHIVELDER: Well, maybe their minds need to be messed up with.

CONAN: And this is a project that, over a couple of weeks, has already changed their lives, and it proves to change all of their lives, indeed. Yet it also changes Vik Muniz's life, too.

Ms. WALKER: That's the wonderful thing. Yeah, it's not a one-way street, and life is getting complicated and the story reflects that, that when Vik set out, yeah, to change people's lives, of course, as all good stories go, his own life gets changed. And I must say, all of us making the movie experienced the same thing. I think that we feel thoroughly transformed. And I don't say that lightly. I sort of - I get annoyed with people when they say, oh, my life was changed. I look at them and I think, well, you look like the same person to me.

But I must say that these people are really so, you know, incredible. I mean, for example, Tiao, you know, he's never been to school and he taught himself to read, and he picks Machiavelli's "The Prince" out of the garbage and teaches himself about leadership because he wants his community to have daycare and skills training. They don't want to be sex workers or drug traffickers. They need computers and they need sewage systems. And so he, you know, is working so hard.

We have Irma. The women in this movie are just incredibly resourceful and strong. And what they've been through in their lives, you know, will make your jaws drop. And yet how they've handled it is - it's like a lighthouse in a dark night, or a warm fire on a cold night. You just want to go stand next to it and wonder at how a human, you know, the dignity of the human spirit and the indomitability is just a marvel to behold.

CONAN: We're talking with Lucy Walker, director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Waste Land." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Toward the end of the movie, Vik Muniz talks a little bit how his life has changed and he said, I grew up poor. I grew up here. It's only through luck that I managed to become an artist. I could've been one of these people. I then went through a period where I had to justify the change in my life through a lot of material things. I'm now seeing things in a more simple way.

And, indeed, I gather that part of his life was that he relocated from his Brooklyn base back to Brazil.

Ms. WALKER: Yeah. It's interesting that he's reconnected with his Brazilian roots, and through the course of the movie, also gotten divorced. And actually, one of the things that's wonderful about filming is that you see his spectacular studio is filled with all the art books and these incredible cameras. And when you spend enough time in the landfill, you get back to his, you know, spectacular apartment and his kitchen has like, you know, 45 cool mugs and stuff. And it looks like so much junk, you know? And he looks, sort of, trapped by his possessions.

And you think about how happy he had been at the end of the project in the landfill where he was really bonded with these pickers and having a real laugh and the joy of the creative community spirit that he experienced during the project. And he gets back home and he's sort of lonely, surrounded by his stuff. And that prompts a big sort of realization from him. It's really cool, sort of, like, a lot of food for thought in this movie. And...

CONAN: And at least...

Ms. WALKER: Yeah.

CONAN: At least in the version of the film I saw, we don't learn about his relocation to Brazil, nor about his divorce.

Ms. WALKER: This is, sort of, happened subsequently. I mean, the movie premiered a year ago, so it's all happening pretty thick and fast. But, yeah, life keeps changing. We keep changing the updates at the end of the movie. And we've been through, like, three versions already, because loads of really cool stuff's happened, particularly with raising loads of money we've raised - the money we continue to raise through all the film projects we've been donating. And also, we just had another charity auction. Vik's donated three more pieces, three more portraits. We raised $360,000 U.S. more just last week for the pickers and all the great work that they're doing. They're actually closing the landfill now. So it's very important to have skills training.

CONAN: Yes. I we hear about that, that the landfill is scheduled to close in 2012, and also that recycling will begin in Brazilian towns. That's what they're doing, removing the materials that we would recycle in this country, they're picking out of the garbage as it arrives at the dump and gathering it and selling it.

But the role they play, then, in preserving, well, so much of the environment and a lot of other things, but what are they going to do in a year's time? And what's the future of their association when those recyclable materials are no longer being dumped?

Ms. WALKER: Well, there's still, you know, the way the world is going, we're certainly not using less garbage, right? So nobody's opposing modernization of recycling. In fact, these people at the forefront of progress and, you know, the best possible recycling techniques. And one of the amazing things about Joao and his association is that when he's been travelling for the movie - for example, we were just in Berlin and next week in Los Angeles - he's visiting all the sanitation facilities and picking up all the best, most progressive techniques.

So no one's opposing that. And there's a real role for these people who are tremendous environmental stewards and really know their stuff regarding garbage and recyclables. In the future, in the more - as the laws change and the machines change and Brazil sort of gets more up-to-date with its recycling techniques, these people can still have jobs. But it's also important that they have, as I said, more jobs. These are people who don't want to be sex workers, don't want to be drug traffickers, don't want to be begging or stealing.

And when life got really tough and their options got really limited, they chose to work in a landfill, which, in a way, they're only endangering themselves. They're not endangering or, you know, or resorting to anything that's criminal or sort of dangerous. These are some of salt-of-the-earth people. And they just have this wonderful attitude. And you realize that these people that is doing the dirty work for the rest of us and suffering, you know, there's just a lot of prejudice and being ostracized, which - whereas, in fact, we should be really, you know, appreciating and celebrating them.

And one of the wonderful things about the film is I think it shows to spotlight on, really, our unsung heroes of the planet.

CONAN: Lucy Walker, good luck on Oscar night.

Ms. WALKER: Thank you.

CONAN: Lucy walker joined us from a studio in Los Angeles. She directed the Oscar-nominated documentary "Waste Land." Our series on the Oscar-nominated best feature-length documentaries continues tomorrow. Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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