Waste Land and the Birth of Hope

Waste LandAbout that title…[1]

If you want to see the kind of social connections that I have to the people who live around me, all you have to do is go out on the street on a Monday night. Tuesday morning there is garbage pick-up, so everyone brings their garbage bins out to the sidewalk the evening before. That’s when people see one another. They nod and sometimes, they even wave. The connection is almost too powerful. Luckily, we don’t all take our garbage out at the same time, so I am likely to only see any given neighbor every couple of months. Whew! Dodged a bullet there!

The film Waste Land is about the artist Vik Muniz’s work with the Pickers who extract recyclable material from Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill. It is a dirty and sometimes horrific job—one young woman tells about finding a dead baby in the landfill. But more than that, it looks like an extremely dangerous job. Nothing was mentioned about this, except for one young man who was badly injured years before. Yet the people seem reasonably happy. They make about 50% above the minimum wage. And they seem to have a real sense of community—the thing Americans try so hard to avoid or destroy.

Although I was most struck by how connected they all were, I don’t think this is so much a cultural issue. I think what binds them together is that they are unionized. And one of the most important things that unions do is put their members’ work into perspective and allow them to see that they are part of something bigger then themselves. As one of them says[2], “99 is not 100.” He was talking about recycling, but it is even more true with people.

The film itself is not about community; it is about hope. There is a point towards the end of the film when Vik Muniz says, “I’d rather want everything and have nothing than have everything and want nothing. Because at least when you want something your life has meaning, its worthwhile. From the moment you think you have everything you have to search for meaning in other things.” He goes on to say that he has started to find meaning in helping other people, which is what the project and the film are all about.

My Take

I am no ombudsman, but I thought it was a very good film. In fact, if it weren’t for the last very sentimental 10 minutes (most of the time from when Muniz made the statement above up to the “Where are they now?” ending), I would have called it great. Still, it is well worth seeing. It will literally make you laugh and cry. I’m not sure if it will become a part of you.

As for me: I can’t wait for Monday evening!


[1] Yes, this is a reference to The Death of Hope: Sweet Charity and All That Jazz.

[2] I believe he was the guy who got the union started, but I’m not sure (see A Quick Note on Subtitles). Also, the young man who was injured was also an organizer. I missed some details. You should watch it yourself.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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