Before artist Vik Muniz travels to Rio de Janeiro to work on a new project at one of the world’s largest landfills, he expects to find a rough crowd working there, drug addicts surely. His wife, supportive but visibly anxious about the idea, asks him pointed questions. “This is the end of the line,” he says, pointing to a satellite shot of Jardim Gramacho, implying that society’s “garbage”, at least in the eyes of Rio’s middle class, probably ends up there too. Not only are the recyclable pickers (catadores) that Muniz finds when he arrives very normal people though, they have warmth and wisdom and tremendous dignity. Garbage is revealing and these folks have a penetrating view of humanity because of their work with it.
Muniz employs a handful of the catadores to help him construct huge portraits of the pickers themselves, made from the very materials they collect. The proceeds from the work are then donated back to the picker’s “union”. Along the way, Muniz befriends the catadores and reflects on how little it would have taken for him to end up in the same situation as a relatively poor kid growing up in Rio.
Viewers will come away from the film with great respect for the catadores who must confront daily, with great personal danger, the detritus of everyone else’s wasteful lives. The landfill itself is a fascinating, post-apocalyptic setting for the story. Muniz is perhaps a little too self-righteous about his ability to make a difference in the lives of these people through his particular vision (and he’s challenged on it by his friends halfway through the film). But overall the film is respectful and does a great job illuminating the lives of the catadores (and the relationship they have with our trash) for the rest of us.