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Recyclers Turn Rio 'Waste Land' Into High Art

Feb 21, 2011 (Talk of the Nation)

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Waste Land tells the story of workers at Brazil's largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho. The workers wade through the thousands of tons of garbage that arrive each day, looking for recyclable scraps to sell.

Director Lucy Walker documented the pickers and Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz, who returned to his home country to collaborate with the trash workers. Together they turn garbage into beautiful works of art, with Jardim Gramacho as their canvas.

Muniz posed the workers, often as subjects of famous paintings, and then projected huge images of those pictures onto his studio floor. Muniz and the workers then used recyclable materials to mark the contours of their faces and to fill in the shadows.

Muniz then took his photos of the finished works to London, where they drew in thousands of pounds at auction — all of which have been donated to the Garbage Pickers' Association of Jardim Gramacho.

"We keep changing the updates at the end of the movie ... because loads of amazing things have happened," Walker tells NPR's Neal Conan. Perhaps one of the most significant developments is the planned closure of Jardin Gramacho, as Brazil adopts a more comprehensive recycling program.

The closure will cost the workers their current jobs, but Walker is optimistic that there will still be a role for them in the Brazil's changing waste and recycling industry. "There's a role for these people, who are tremendous environmental stewards and really know their stuff," says Walker. "As the laws change and the machines change, and Brazil gets more up to date with its recycling techniques, these people can still have jobs."

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