Long camera shots give a unique perspective of the vast scale of this colourful moving mountain of refuse, and the ant-like industry of the numerous catadores that live off its resources by sorting and recycling a huge percentage of Brazil’s waste. The documentary focuses on a society of extraordinary people, such as Tião Santos, president of a worker’s cooperative association; the self-educated Zumbi, who thrives on abandoned books and who has created a community lending library; Irma, who cooks the freshest disposed-of food she can find on the dump for her co- workers and is a teenaged mother of two and Suelem, who grew up in the Gramacho shanty town.
Earning an average of about $20 a day, many catadores have an intrinsic pride in the importance of the work they do. For some, it is an alternative to a far less worthy lifestyle. This microcosm has organised itself to a level of efficiency, with medical and daycare centres, a recycling centre and training facilities.
Into this vibrant landscape and distinct society comes Vik Muniz, a Brazilian-born, Brooklyn-based artist known for his imaginative recreations of familiar images using unusual media – a pair of Mona Lisas made from peanut butter and jam, a Civil War soldier created from small plastic toys – with a proposal. The philanthropic Muniz suggests an artistic endeavour in collaboration with the catadores, to create their photographic portraits from the trash that surrounds and supports them. In this way, he ventures to change their lives, and maybe the outside world’s perspective of an underclass of humanity.
Zumbi poses as the peasant farmer of Millet’s The Sower, and Suelem becomes a Renaissance Madonna. Tião, to his bemused delight, becomes a photographic recreation of David’s 1793 portrait of Jean Marat, lying in a recovered bathtub sourced at the tip, an everlasting storeroom of artistic materials. Muniz projects the images onto his studio floor and, using a laser pointer, directs the catadores to manipulate detritus into works of art. The photograph of this artwork becomes the final result.
Vik Muniz clearly sees the world with an artist’s eye – taking something and revealing its more beautiful essence. In this respect he isn’t so different from the catadores. The resultant portraits – Pictures of Garbage – are as large in size as the project is in scope, and prompts the catadores to see their own lives as vast and important too. The subjects are clearly moved as they confront their own images on display in a gallery – none more so than Tião, who accompanies Muniz to auction where his portrait achieves a heady $50,000. It is a moment of vindication for Tião’s intrinsic worth as a human being.
In English and Portuguese with subtitles, and a soundtrack by Moby, this is a documentary for everyone who recycles and for everyone who doesn’t. For those surrounded by the detritus of life, and for those who aspire to higher things. For people who make the best of what life throws at them, and for people who are swamped by existence. This documentary is one surprising load of rubbish. It will touch your heart and open your mind. You won’t want to miss it.