Throughout his career, Vik Muniz has created art from unlikely materials, using substances such as sugar, dirt and chocolate to produce remarkable images. In Lucy Walker's Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land, we follow the Brazilian artist as he embarks upon an extraordinarily ambitious project, collaborating with workers from the world's largest landfill to create portraits from the rubbish they collect every day. It is an eye-opening and moving film, and I met Vik Muniz when he was in London for last year's London Film Festival to talk about it.
Where did the initial idea for the Jardim Gramacho project come from?
I had wanted to work with garbage for ten years, because when you're dealing with garbage there are all of these indiscernible things and your eyes keep wandering about. Your gaze doesn't seem to stop anywhere when you're looking at garbage, and these objects don't seem to have a clear identity, so it's a very interesting environment from an artistic perspective, and a very weird visual environment. I couldn't do it before, because I had been to São João, another very large dump, and the drug traffickers were protecting heaps of garbage with machine guns, so me and Fabio said, "OK, this is not going to work." I went back to working with junk and discarded goods, but garbage is something else, because it's more complicated, you know? Also, garbage is something you are always trying to hide, and to work with material you normally try to avoid, it would be very interesting to make people come closer to a picture to look at this substance, when they are trained from the beginning of their lives to be away from it.
There's a line in the film when you say, "The moment when one thing transforms into another is the most beautiful moment," and there aren't many transformations bigger than a piece of garbage into a work of art.
Yes, it's really true, and garbage sort of dictates the proximity of the viewer too. There is a natural prejudice and when we look at garbage we are inclined to pull back, it's repulsive, so you have something that is pushing you away but you also want to be closer to see what it is made of.
At what point did you get involved with Lucy Walker?
When I met Lucy in Newcastle to discuss the possibility of making of the film, she mentioned that she had been to Fresh Kills in New York and she had this interest in garbage too. I said that I hate artist documentaries, because they always feel very fake. I mean, I love the art of Richard Long, but I saw a documentary where he was just walking by himself through some desert, and we're supposed to forget that there's a film crew and a catering cart right behind him [laughs]. At the same time, you also get documentaries where people are saying eulogies about the artist, "Oh, he's a genius," and I hate that crap, I can't stand it. I had even done one before that was a little bit like this, but I had seen Lucy's films, especially The Devil's Playground, and I liked the way she films, she almost disappears. I told her that I wasn't interested in doing a documentary on my work, but doing a documentary that focused on the process of a single work, from beginning to end. It would be interesting for me to be outside of the movie and see the whole process with me in it, to see how I go about things. It was very organic, the way we did it. I had worked with several social projects in Brazil, and that project was something I had been thinking about, but it was only when I went to Gramacho and saw the human potential that I decided to bring the subject into the process itself.
That human potential is the real reason the film works so well. Did you quickly find the characters who would become so integral to the story?
It was straight away, but I'll tell you something else. If I had to pick another 5, 6 or 7 characters, I could just go like this [points in random directions] and I would come up with five equally interesting stories, because it's the environment itself that creates those people. It's hard, but they create survival strategies that are very effective in that environment, and once shared, it's a positive dynamic, it's very strange. You're in the middle of mountains of garbage, in the heat, rubbing elbows with people all the time, and there are hardly any fights, nobody ever steals. Ethically, they are so clean.
There is a great sense of community among them, and they have created a little society for themselves.
There was this guy in Brazil who studied prisoners, and when they had thirty prisoners in a cell that could only fit eight people, they had very strict rules and organisation. You always see organisation from people who are forced into very tough situations. Just look at this case with the miners in Chile, once the panic is gone you get very effective ways to organise, and that's what happens in Gramacho. Because it's organic and self-organised, it resonates very deeply in the way people carry themselves, and it's not imposed on them like they're working in a public office. In Brazil, you go to an office to get documents sometimes, and the people are so nasty! They have such a horrible work environment, they hate each other and they hate everybody who comes in, but in Gramacho people are very cordial from the minute you arrive, and you don't feel threatened. They have a real camaraderie and a feeling that's very positive.
Were you surprised by the sense of pride they took in their work? They keep saying that at least they have their dignity and they haven't turned to drugs or prostitution.
Well, it's true that they are proud of what they do because what they do is very hard. They work night and day, they work 14-hour shifts, and it's a really harsh environment. But I also think a lot of it is denial, it's the way they actually manage to get through it. They keep repeating, "This is good," like a mantra until they believe it. Thankfully, this film is not a scratch and sniff film [laughs], but the smell of that place is incredible. It was tough to be there, it was tough just for the 15 days we spent filming there before we started working in the studio. Even in the studio, there was such a stench. After a year and a half, we still couldn't get that smell out of the studio.
How has this project and this experience affected the way you approach your art?
The test for me was that you get to a point where you have done this for twenty years, and you have to admit that you do a lot of it automatically. You're an artist, people tell you you're a good artist, they buy your work, and it becomes like a routine. When you feel that you have done it without thinking once or twice, you have to stop and ask yourself the question: what is this that I'm doing? Is this art thing real, or is it a job like any other job? A lot of artists don't know much about politics, or the economy or recycling or things in real life; we live an odd kind of life without really living a life, you know? For me, if this project had an effect on their lives, it would prove to me that this thing was real, and it did. The most beautiful spark in the film for me is when Magna holds the picture and she says, "You have no idea what this means to me." I never cried during the film but when I watch that I really have to hold it in, because when she says that, in my mind I'm repeating to her, "You have no idea what that means to me." It's so sincere, she's telling me that this is real, this is part of the rituals and behaviour that makes us better people, and what we do has value. I believe that it has made me a better human being and a better teacher. I like to teach, but do it in a very organised way that can be too didactic, so I'm always trying to pull this back and let the work take its own form.