“Waste Land” Demonstrates the Transformative Power of Art

Photo by Vickie Bates.

Last night, I watched “Waste Land,” about the catadores who work day and night picking recyclable materials from Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill.

The documentary explores what happens when renowned artist Vik Muniz returns to Brazil to photograph the catadores and winds up collaborating with them on works of art – portraits composed of thousands upon thousands of items pulled from the dump that function like pixels in a digital photograph. Fifty-eight minutes into the film, the camera pulls back, and we see the enormity of the portraits the catadores are creating with Muniz, and the effect is mesmerizing.

The portraits are made of throwaway junk from the disposable culture of Rio’s suburbs, the artwork is swept up in the end and disposed of, but the people are never treated by Muniz or the filmmakers as disposable.

The documentary is all about the transcendent power of art. Through the course of the film, you’ll see people’s lives transformed by the act of creation – and by the faith that Muniz had in their ability to be true artistic collaborators.

The Rigdzin Duepa Sand Mandala, created by four master Tibetan mandala artists at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Watching this film was akin to witnessing the creation of a mandala, which is a work of art, an act of faith, and a willingness to let go of the ego that wants to claim individual authorship and ownership. Like Muniz’s portraits, mandalas require a team of artists, daily renewal of one’s faith in achieving the final vision, and the strength to sweep it all away in the end and trust that the meaning will survive in the hearts and memories of those who’ve participated.

What happened for Muniz after the creation of these portraits transformed him, too, and it’s a fascinating story to follow as his life and the lives of the filmmakers and catadores intertwine and they take on responsibility for each other’s fates.

Rio will be closing the Jardim Gramacho landfill in 2012, according to the filmmakers, meaning that even these subsistence-level jobs will be lost. As a result of “Waste Land,” which was nominated for an Academy Award and won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary, funds have been donated to the organization representing the catadores to provide retraining and upskilling, as well as education for their children.

You can learn more at the “Waste Land” website or rent or purchase the documentary at places like NetFlix, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Is there a film, book, artwork that transformed your life, either in the creation of it or the viewing or reading? What was that experience like?