‘Waste Land’ Director: Another Fine Mess … of Garbage

The compelling human narrative that pulled me on a journey through NYU film school to the top of Everest … and straight into a Brazilian landfill

Last Updated: January 21, 2011 @ 9:35 AM

So there I was, squelching knee-deep in trash in the scariest favela of Rio De Janeiro on a wet afternoon, my arms too sore to move from vaccinations, my whole body wrapped mummy-like in multiple layers of noisy plastic protective clothing fit for a moon-landing in a dystopian sitcom.

The Brazilian production manager was telling me how many security guards and how many machine guns we’d need. Next item on the checklist was bulletproof vehicles. The garbage smells were gang-raping our noses. And my brain was quoting Joseph Conrad's "Lord Jim" at me:

"A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea. If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns … The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up … To follow the dream, and again to follow the dream — and so — ewig–usque ad finem …"

A fine moment to remember Joseph Conrad — or Laurel and Hardy, since this was certainly another fine mess I’d gotten myself into. 

As if I hadn’t staked enough of my life befriending Amish crystal meth dealers or climbing Everest with blind people. Now, here I was location-scouting for my next movie in the largest landfill in the world, submerging myself in the destructive element that is garbage …

I didn’t need a new documentary project, I needed a new head.
 
At that moment I heard a squeaky horn-honk and looked up.

Cycling towards me, grinning and tooting on a cheesy eagle-horn was a catador, someone who picks through recyclable materials for a living.

I’d been expecting these pickers of recyclable materials to be the scariest of scavengers, garbage-monsters, murderers and madmen, vultures in human form.

Vik Muniz (the New York-based artist whose project was bringing us here) had billed the place as “where everything that’s not good goes, including the people”.

Yet this catador was the most charming — and funkily-dressed — man I’d ever seen. He flashed a peace sign and bowed his head as he cycled by taking care not to splatter me with garbage juice.
 
Vik says that "the moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment. A combination of sounds turns into music. And that applies to everything."

This was my most beautiful filmmaker's moment, when my vision for the movie transformed as I saw how unimaginably charming the people here might be.

I knew that your life had to have taken some dramatic turns to have taken you over the narrow bridge of land into the swampy tumor that is the Jardim Gramacho landfill.

And I knew that the people there would be transformative to meet. And would make for a terrific documentary. But until that moment I hadn't realized how delightful.

I ripped soggy layers of protective clothing from my hands, grabbed a cellphone, snapped a photo of the “mongo” on Valter’s bike (“mongo” is a word used by the NYC Sanitation Department as a verb or a noun to describe the treasures salvaged from the trash for personal use) and called up our wonderful producer, who was hard at work… on Ipanema Beach.

I told him to order some caiprinhas, because the film was going to be even better than we'd hoped … and also because I was going to need a drink when I got out of that place.
 
The project had been conceived in the fertile darkness of some totally organic conversations between Vik and myself in Newcastle and New York over the winter of 2006-07.

Having discovered that we were mutually excited about one another's work, the only film I could conceive to make would be to follow one big art project, one that would profoundly challenge him, so that we could see him struggle, risking real failure, to expose his process.

I'd been hard at work surreptitiously scanning Vik through hours of conversations, but I still didn't think we had any business making a film.

Then I finally asked him if he'd ever worked with garbage, and that proved to be the magic question.

Ten years previously I had visited a landfill on a lark, and hadn't ever been able to rinse it out of my brain. Instantly Vik lit up — he had been trying to do a project with garbage for years, but it was proving too dangerous.

Landfills were organized crime's preferred hiding places for guns, drugs, dead bodies, and they didn't welcome photographers. He'd been looking for a landfill in Brazil that was safe enough to work in, but had yet to find it.

That was it. The lightbulb lit. I knew that a landfill would be a sufficiently rich location. And I knew about catadores and that they would be the optimal test case for his dream of transforming lives through art.

And I knew that garbage would be the ultimate challenge for an alchemical artist like Vik, who likes to transform the basest of materials into the most expensive of pictures.

All that I had learned about Vik — starting with the fact that he had grown up in extreme poverty in Brazil — resonated for me in this project.

I knew for sure that it was the unique configuration in which we had an interesting documentary film to make together. Later Vik continued to throw out more ideas, but I knew we had the one already.

I told him that if he ever did anything to do it with this garbage project, even something as simple as talking to his wife, or looking at Google Earth, even sitting down to think about it, we had to film it.

That was the only rule: everything had to happen on-camera.

And so with that simple process we were able to capture the whole journey from the beginning. The film was never to be about one thing or the other. It wasn't about either art or garbage, or Vik or the matadors.

What always most interested me was to be found at the closest points of contact, at the meeting of the real and the dramatic, in the collaboration between Vik and the catadores, in this journey of forked and crossing paths, when you can step into different shoes and understand the encounters that turn and shape lives.
 
As I’d set about learning how to make verité films making my first film "Devil's Playground," about Amish teenagers' rumspringa period of experimentation, countless fiction films had excited me, starting with Luis Buñuel’s "Los Olvidados" and Hector Babenco’s "Pixote." (The latter had been written by the father of "Waste Land's" sound recordist, who in the landfill kept turning green and fainting because of the stink, until he realized he was about to nose-dive into the garbage, the thought of which snapped him back upright as effectively as any smelling salts.)

But the greatest inspiration had come from non-fiction filmmakers, from my NYU teacher Barbara Kopple, along with the British "Seven Up!" series, and the documentaries "Hoop Dreams" and "Streetwise." 

This was thrilling feed for our new generation of non-fiction filmmakers coming into the technical revolution of cheap, portable projection-quality cameras and non-linear editing that enabled this current golden era of narratively-compelling documentary feature films.

Steve James’s persistence and perceptiveness in "Hoop Dreams"  showed us that hanging on to real life with enough stamina and skill could reveal a narrative more compelling than fiction.

Another of my revelations were photographers like Robert Frank ("The Americans," of course) and especially Mary Ellen Mark, whose words to Charlie Rose stay with me: "I'm just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven't had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence."

Mary Ellen had worked with her husband Martin Bell to make "Streetwise," the brilliant 1984 documentary about homeless teenagers in Seattle, which had blown my film student mind when I’d first happened upon it at Kim’s Video.

I couldn’t believe that anyone had been in the same room during such intimate moments with such vulnerable teenagers, let alone shooting such perfect photography.
 
And now as I write this, for some reason my brain is quoting Brecht at me — it's from the prologue to "The Exception and the Rule." 

It's a pretty arcane introduction to a documentary which I am proud to say is as accessible and emotional as you'd ever want a documentary to be.

But if "Waste Land" is about the transformative power of art, it was maybe this poem, back when I was 19, that spurred me on a wild whim to apply for a scholarship to NYU film school, and that's the path that brought me to direct "Waste Land" …
 
“We are about to tell you
The story of a journey…
Examine carefully the behaviour of these people:
Find it surprising though not unusual
Inexplicable though normal
Incomprehensible though it is the rule.
Consider even the most insignificant, seemingly simple
Action with distrust. Ask yourselves whether it is necessary
Especially if it is usual.
We ask you expressly to discover
That what happens all the time is not natural.
For to say that something is natural
In such times of bloody confusion
Of ordained disorder, of systematic arbitrariness
Of inhuman humanity is to
Regard it as unchangeable.”