Nov 11, 2010


The Talmud, I believe, says that there are four ways of giving charity, and the most preferable is when the donors do not know who they are giving to and the recipients do not know who the donors are. This eliminates the recipients' shame and obligation to be grateful and it also prevents inflated egos and expectations of undying gratitude on the part of the munificent. This is very wise, for as we know, even in the most selfless-seeming acts, there are always some sort of strings attached.
This documentary by Lucy Walker follows extremely successful Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz as he decides to give back to his roots by making art with and about the trash pickers of the biggest landfill on Earth, which happens to be in the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. In an Orwellian twist of language, the place is called Jardim Gramacho -- Gramacho Garden. Whatever else it is about, everyone should see this movie to get a sense of what happens to the tons of garbage we generate. You will never see your stupid bottle of Poland Spring, or any of your trash for that matter, in the same way ever again. In developing countries, the poorest of the poor make a meager livelihood by sorting out the refuse the rest of us throw mindlessly away. In Brazil people don't even bother separating plastic, glass, cans and paper from organic refuse, hence the trash pickers need to climb and burrow into mountains of revolting filth in order to pick the recyclables that will net them at the very most $25 a day. These trash pickers are smart, organized and they seem to have more environmental awareness than the trash throwers, but as usual, someone wants to develop the landfill and put them out of a job. I hope that they get paid well for the land, and placed in better jobs. I doubt it.
Muniz's intentions seem sincere: to make portraits of these people with the garbage they collect, sell it directly at auction and give 100% of the proceeds back to them. By lifting them up from anonymity he intends to change their lives, at which huge bells of alarm start ringing in the viewer's mind.
Walker starts out by focusing on Muniz, but once the trash pickers are introduced, they totally steal the show. Muniz and his assistant pick a highly charismatic group of intelligent, articulate, and dignified men and women, and the film is most enlightening and poignant whenever it focuses on them. Yet Walker misses the opportunity to make the film about them, or to explore Muniz's stunt from their point of view. Even with the good intentions of the artists involved, there is a whiff of the patronizing, in Muniz's paternalistic and naively exuberant benevolence, in the filmmaker's going along with it without much probing a counter argument, and without seizing the story of the trash pickers and making them more central to the film. The only person who seems to provide a counterpoint is Muniz's wife, and she voices what some of us in the audience are thinking: and who are you, Vik Muniz, that you think you can sweep these impoverished people off their garbage and "change their lives" through art? How exactly are their lives going to be changed?
Intrinsically, his high concept stunt has its heart in the right place: the trash pickers lives will change because it will humanize and individualize them. It will change their perception of themselves. It will turn their terrible labor into a thing of beauty. This much it does. The subjects seem to thrive by collaborating with Muniz, and they are paid for their efforts. Muniz's art is big on ideas and sloppy on execution. He takes great photographic portraits of his subjects, blows them up to enormous scale and then has the pickers fill them up with the garbage they collect, as he mostly directs the proceedings from above with a laser pointer. The end result looks rather cheesy and the strong personalities of the characters are almost erased beneath the forced layers of conceptual meaning the artist is bent on imposing on them. It's also gimmicky: the trash pickers are asked to pose like characters in famous classical paintings. Why couldn't they just be heroic, as they are, without the superfluous and pretentious artistic wink? 
At the end of the movie, titles update the audience on some of the positive fallout: with the $50,000 made on the auction, Tiago, the organizer pictured above, has opened a learning center for the trash pickers, one of the women leaves her husband and becomes independent, another woman now works as an employee elsewhere and wants everyone to know she is very happy. They all appear on TV and get their 15 minutes of fame. But not everybody fares as well. The 19 year old who already has two babies is now expecting a third; the amazing Irma, the cook who feeds the pickers, opens her own business, and according to the titles, misses her friends so much she goes back to the dump. They all get copies of their portraits and hang them in the flimsy walls of their homes. Aren't they valuable? Will they invite burglars? So many questions... I'm not a Pollyanna. I am always deeply suspicious of feel good movies about the poor. 
Even with the lack of contrasting opinions and the insistence on the happy ending, the scenes with the trash pickers are enormously enlightening and eloquent. More than one of them mentions that they are proud to make a decent living instead of dealing drugs or selling their bodies on the streets, which seem to be the only other options available to get out of poverty. They are experts at figuring out the previous owners of the trash; more fortunate people who throw away perfectly solid pairs of shoes, incomprehensible people who throw books away, or the very poor, who tend to put their garbage in small bags. Getting to know the trash pickers is thinking there but for the grace of God go I, and this is of much more benefit to us than we can ever be to them.
When the abyss between the haves and the have-nots is so insurmountable, one person trying to do something for the very poor seems between quixotic and ridiculous, between sublime and self-serving, even as the gesture is appreciated and is certainly better than nothing. This enormous divide is not only created by lack of money, but also by lack of education, by racism, by class barriers, and the exploitation of the many by the few. Good intentions are laudable but cosmetic. The great injustice of poverty requires a profound and massive redistribution of wealth. I'm not advocating communism, but the trickle down bullshit is just bullshit. It is not getting anywhere near the bottom.

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