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Vik Muniz’s Rio Waste Land

interior-muniz1 The world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho, is on the northern edge of Rio De Janeiro, a short drive from the city’s famous beaches and Sugar Loaf mountain. The first sign that you’re approaching it is the vultures circling overhead, then the methane fires that burn day and night. Trucks rumble through the surrounding favela at all hours. The smell of decay is overpowering.

For 26 years, Valter Dos Santos worked at the tip, picking through huge piles of rotting food, dirty nappies and polythene bags to find recyclable materials worth a few pence a kilo. He learned to tell twelve different types of plastic apart by crushing them in his hand. When drug gangs were at war, he knew to expect bodies in bin liners. He told friends “the struggle is long, but victory is certain,” and took great pride in his job.

Spotting cameras by the gate one morning as he cycled in to work, he flashed a peace sign and grinned. “I called our producer, who was on Ipanema beach at the time,” remembers director Lucy Walker. “I said ‘this film is going to be spectacular.’”

Dos Santos is one of the stars of Waste Land, which accompanies the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz on a project to transform rubbish into art, and in doing so, help a dirt poor, forgotten community. “I went there expecting to meet drug addicts, murderers, the roughest people you can think of,” Muniz says. “Gramacho is where everything that’s not good goes, including the people. In Brazilian society, the way they’re treated is not that much different from the garbage itself.”

The film started out as a documentary about Muniz, who is known for making ephemeral artworks, using earth, wire, chocolate syrup, vapour trails and salvaged car parts, then photographing the results. But when he visited the landfill with a crew, the focus shifted, away from him, to the people he met scavenging through the trash. “Their stories are much more interesting than mine,” he says.

Zumbi is a collector of discarded books, who started at the dump when he was nine years old and once had his leg and both his arms broken by a refuse truck. Isis has been picking through the rubbish ever since her son died and her husband ran off, taking her daughter. Suelem arrived with her mum at the age of seven and stayed. Pregnant with her third child at eighteen, she is tall and tanned and young and lovely: a girl so near but so far from Ipanema.

Muniz divides his time between Rio and New York, where he made his name with an exhibition at the Museum Of Modern Art, in 1997, that featured portraits of children from St Kitts, drawn in sugar from the island’s plantation. We meet at his studio in Brooklyn, on a frigid morning that begs the question why he isn’t spending January in the Southern Hemisphere.

What at first glance looks like the frame for Picasso’s Woman Ironing, leaned against the wall, turns out to be a facsimile, accurate to the last splinter, from an exhibition called Verso, in which Muniz reproduced the backs of famous paintings. There’s a poster of Double Mona Lisa (Peanut Butter & Jelly) – Leonardo’s masterpiece as Andy Warhol’s packed lunch – and a collage of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog made from tiny scraps of magazines.

Collected together like this, his conceptual work seems like a grand joke at the art world’s expense. He surely appreciates the fact that he’s up against Banksy at the Oscars, where Waste Land will do battle with Exit Through The Gift Shop in the Documentary Feature category. A fridge full of expensive wine in the corner of the studio – a dusty old Saint-Estephe Grand Cru Classé is the only visible label – is a reminder that “messing with people’s minds” has been a lucrative career.

Muniz grew up poor, in a Sao Paulo neighbourhood one step up from the favela. Until recently, his parents lived in the house that his father built there, but the last time he visited, a young footsoldier in the drug trade held a machine gun to his head, thinking he was an undercover cop.

He describes Rio as “St Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu” for its extremes of wealth and poverty. Where the luxury apartment buildings end, the shanty towns begin, sprawling upwards over every available patch of hillside. His millionaire neighbours don’t put the rubbish out themselves, of course – nor does he – so they are unlikely consider where it ends up. “Gramacho might as well be Sri Lanka, it’s that distant to them,” he says.

Waste Land draws attention to an underclass few Brazilians are aware of. There are around 2,500 pickers at the dump, separating 200 tons of recycled material every day. It is a disgusting, arduous job that is nobody’s first choice. “Every one of them has a story that they tell themselves,” Muniz says. “In order to survive, they have convinced themselves of the importance of what they do. This gives them dignity, but it’s also a little bit of denial.”

The women are proud not to sell their bodies to tourists in Copacabana. The men have said no to drugs and guns. “There are easier ways to make money and people have chosen not to do it that way, which helps explain why they are so shockingly impressive,” says Walker. Muniz insists they could have chosen any of the pickers they met and made an equally moving film, about human courage and persistence in unimaginably harsh circumstances. “Most of the people that we asked didn’t want to come with us,” he says. “They didn’t believe that we would pay them and they need the money that they earn, just to survive.”

Together with his assistant, Fabio Ghivelder, Muniz spent the first day at the landfill taking pictures of the workers, some in poses from well known paintings depicting labour, such as The Sower by Jean-François Millet. These were projected on to the floor at his studio in Rio, from a scaffold four storeys high. The pickers then covered their own blown up images with recyclable materials from the tip: tyres, toilet seats, washers, bottle tops, flip-flops and carnival costumes. In a typically provocative gesture, Muniz called the finished photos Pictures Of Garbage.interior-muniz2

He believes that “the moment of transformation, when one thing turns into another, is the most beautiful,” and although he’s talking about the way his art tricks the eye, revealing its true composition at close quarters, he also hopes that the project will change lives. Several of the pickers cried when they saw their portraits from on high, as if the vantage point enabled them to see the beauty of life’s potential and the wretchedness of their existence.

Ghivelder worried that pulling them from their environment, then dropping them back, after a holiday from the filth and drudgery, might be emotionally damaging, but Muniz is convinced that the experience can only be beneficial. “Stepping outside your reality for a moment is powerful because it gives you perspective, especially for people who have been crippled by being told so many times what they can’t do. It’s good to have your mind messed up by the possibility of a better life,” he asserts.

In the end, though, he only took Tiao, the charismatic young leader of the rubbish pickers union, to see his picture auctioned off in London. Muniz donated the £28,000 it raised to the recycling co-op and has since sold more prints for the same cause. The workers now have a truck of their own, subsidised housing and a library, with computers. Pickers all over Brazil are getting organised, to demand better conditions. Even the law has changed, requiring cities to recycle and waste processing companies to provide more proper jobs. But this cannot save Jardim Gramacho itself: the dump is due to close next year, depriving a shockingly poor community of its main source of income.

“People always come out of the film asking how they can improve the lives of pickers,” says Tiao. “The first reaction is indignation, because people have no idea about how we deal with rubbish. In Europe, recycling is achieved through education and environmental consciousness. Here in Brazil, it’s through misery and social exclusion. People are starting to understand that, thanks to this film.”