Until a few weeks ago, the last documentary I remember watching was “March of the Penguins.”  I don’t dislike docs, but they always seem to slide down my priority list of movies to watch.  A few weeks ago, though, my friend invited me to a friend’s documentary night – they pop popcorn, watch a doc, and discuss afterwards.  The movie chosen was “Waste Land” (2010), and the next day I went straight to the library, borrowed it, and watched it again and again and again.  I loved it.

In case you haven’t seen it, “Waste Land” tells the story of a small selection of recyclable materials pickers – the catadores – in Rio de Janeiro.  Rio doesn’t have recycling trucks that come around – instead, thousands of people work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump.  They pick through the garbage to find recyclable materials, and send them through various middlemen to be recycled.  I’d never heard of the catadores before – I’d wager few outside of Rio or Brazil had before this movie – but a few years ago Vik Muniz, a Brazilian Brooklyn-based contemporary artist (he does Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly) decided to give back to his country, do a series of portraits using garbage, and give the portrait proceeds to the garbage pickers.  And make a movie, of course.

Honestly, I was entranced.  The people profiled are so complex, so smart and cheerful and hardworking despite sorrows and hardships, that I couldn’t keep my eyes away from them.  There’s Suelem, a totally sweet-faced teenage mother who’s glad not to be prostituting herself on the Copacabana; Zumbi, the resident intellectual who’s building a community library from the books thrown away; Valter, the uncle of the community and his philosophy that “99 [bottles thrown away] is not 100”; and Tiao, the president of the catadores’ association and leader of the masses.

I don’t know what I was doing not watching documentaries, and I know there are good ones out there.  Maybe I was afraid of the realism.  Maybe it’s been engrained in me that movies are, largely, for escapism and not for reality, and therefore should be fictional.  But “Waste Land” was incredibly moving and uplifting without being sappy or out of this world.  And I’m just so, so glad that the catadores’ stories were told.  Now I’m off to find more documentaries to watch.

Have you seen “Waste Land”?  Do you watch many docs? Any recommendations?

– Jean AAR

+ posts

I live in Seattle, Washington and work as a legal assistant. I remember learning to read (comic strips) at a young age and nowadays try to read about 5-6 books a week. I love to travel, especially to Europe, and enjoy exploring smaller towns off the tourist track though London is my favorite city in the world.