‘Waste Land’ Explores Artist’s Use of Garbage to Transform Lives in Brazil

November 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
The film "Waste Land" follows artist Vik Muniz as he creates portraits of a band of self-designated pickers of recyclable materials in Brazil, using the trash that surrounds them. This excerpt is part of The Economist Film Project series of independently produced films aired in partnership between The Economist and the NewsHour.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, another in our Economist Film Project series.

Tonight’s film, “Waste Land,” follows artist Vik Muniz from his studio in New York to the world’s largest garbage dump in his native Brazil. There, Muniz examines the lives of garbage pickers who sift Rio de Janeiro’s refuse in search of recyclables. He then creates portraits of the workers using the very materials they have collected, and, ultimately, photographs of those portraits are exhibited in galleries.

The directors are Lucy Walker, Joao Jardim and Karen Harley.

Here’s an excerpt.

VIK MUNIZ, artist: Right now, I’m at this point in my career that I’m trying to step a little bit away from the realm of fine arts, because I think it’s a very exclusive, very restrictive place to be.

What I really want to do is to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same material that they deal with every day, and not just any material.

The idea I have for my next series is to work with garbage. When you talk about transformation, you know, this being the stuff of art, transforming material and idea, I don’t know. This is the beginning of an idea. I just have the material, and I have to go after an image.

Hey, Fabio (ph).

MAN: Yes? Hey.

VIK MUNIZ: So, did you have a chance to look at that garbage thing?

MAN: Yes. Check the link I just sent you. On YouTube, there’s a video that was shot at this place. It’s called Gramacho, Jardim Gramacho. It’s the biggest landfill in Rio. And they receive the trash from all the Rio area.

VIK MUNIZ: What are the dangers working in a place like this?

MAN: Well, first of all, the place is surrounded by favelas owned by the drug traffic. And I think the stability of the people themselves, they are all excluded from society. Some stay there overnight or the whole week.

It’s going to be hard.

VIK MUNIZ: So do you think it is too hard?

MAN: No, no, because I think it would be much harder to think that we are not able to change the life of these people. And I think we are. So I think it’s worth a try.

VIK MUNIZ: My experience with mixing art with social projects is that that is the main thing, is just taking people away for — even if it is for a few minutes, away from where they are, and showing them another world, another place, even if it’s a place from which they can look at where they are. You know, it just changes everything.

I want this to be an experience of how art could change people, but also, can it change people? Can it — can this be done? And what would be the effect of this?

MAN (through translator): What’s really impressive is that it’s the largest landfill in the world.

MAN (through translator): Yes, it’s the largest landfill in terms of the volume of trash received daily.

MAN (through translator): The pickers take out 200 tons of recycled material per day from the landfill. That’s equivalent to garbage produced by a city of 400,000 people.

MAN (through translator): Amazing.

MAN (through translator): Yes. That’s why the pickers are really important to the landfill, because they help increase its capacity.

MAN (through translator): Does all of Rio’s trash end up here?

MAN (through translator): Seventy percent of Rio’s trash ends up here and 100 percent of the closest suburbs.

MAN (through translator): So the garbage from the millionaire’s mansion mixes with the garbage from the poorest favela?

MAN (through translator): For sure.

MAGNA DE FRANCA SANTOS, Rio de Janeiro (through translator): Don’t put this on TV. I will die.


MAGNA DE FRANCA SANTOS (through translator): I first came here almost a year ago. My husband became unemployed. And we had to pay the bills, keep the household going, support my son.

We would get on the bus, and people would go like this.



MAGNA DE FRANCA SANTOS (through translator): It got to the point where I would say, excuse me, madam, but do I stink? Do you smell something bad? It’s because I was working over there in the dump.

It’s better than turning tricks in Copacabana. I find it to more interesting and more honest. It’s more dignified. I may stink now, but when I get home, I will take a shower, and it’ll be fine.

But it’s disgusting. It’s easy for you to be sitting there at home in front of your television consuming whatever you want and tossing everything in the trash, and leaving it out on the street for the garbage truck to take it away. But where does that garbage go?

MAN: So good.

MAN: Yes, I love it, too.

MAN: This is super strong. This is super strong.

I think this is very nice, too.

VIK MUNIZ (through translator): Everyone who goes to a museum, goes up to a painting, and then they stop and start to go like this. Have you seen this? Everyone does it. They go like this, and then they go back, maybe take a little step back. And they see the image. Let’s imagine it’s a beautiful landscape with a lake and a man fishing. They look and see the man fishing, and then they lean in an everything vanishes and becomes paint.

They see the material. They move away and see the image. Then they get closer and see the material. They move away and see the idea. They get closer and see just the material.

MAN (through translator): Since we’re pickers, we just see recyclable materials.


MAN (through translator): I bet you get people to stay much longer at your exhibits than anyone does. They spend so much time looking at the image, because then they’ll see the ladder, the piano. They’ll look at everything. They’ll spend hours looking at the same picture.

VIK MUNIZ (through translator): The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment. A combination of sounds transforms into music. And that applies to everything. That moment is really magical.

Try and make it gradually darker from here to here. Does that make sense?

Good work, everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: The photos that Muniz made were sold at auction, and Muniz donated the proceeds, $250,000, to the garbage pickers.

“Waste Land” is being screened at film festivals. You can find a link on our website for a list of dates and cities.

And to learn more about the Economist Film Project and to submit your own film, head to