The Trash Tragedy

What about Waste Land?

The background: For 34 years, a seaside mountain of waste and filth marred the image of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, causing environmentalists to chastise the country for its “environmental sins.” The landfill—called Jardim Gramacho—accepted 9,000 tons of trash per day, spanning 321 acres of land and growing to heights of 50 meters. Each morning, over 1,700 men and women traveled to the landfill to gather recyclable materials, collecting bottles and containers to be sorted, sold and traded. These individuals—known as the Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho—had stories to tell. In 2010, Brazilian-born visual artist Vik Muniz made their stories public, releasing the influential documentary “Waste Land” to a worldwide audience.

Although Waste Land first hit the market in late 2010, it took me until recently to watch the film through. And let me tell you–I’m glad I did. As the beginnings of the film unfolded, with Muniz sharing his passions for modern art and for his birth country of Brazil, I found myself expecting another “rich American saves the poor locals” story. I found something entirely different.

Through the lens of art, Muniz supports a community in search of a sustainable life. They have needs and ambitions just like everyone else, though they resort to trash picking to support their number one priority – their families. And so, through practical charity, Muniz sets out to humbly empower “the pickers,” teaching unity through art. This is where “Waste Land” separates itself–by articulating the need to provide sustainable aid, not just momentary relief.

As agents of change, this is our greatest asset. Not in traveling overseas with free shoes, building materials or personal agendas, but with an ambition to generate lasting change. Muniz is a teacher; he instills hope and community within the people of Jardim Gramacho, qualities that will last–and have lasted–long beyond Muniz’s journey back to southern Brazil.

Have you seen Waste Land? What message did the film leave you with?