Vik Muniz "Waste Land" (2010)

This week, I'm organizing a slew of information about the Vermont "E-Waste" Program, for a series I call "Muleskinner Blues".   I cannot just write it in anger, I'm gonna try to be very objective.  But there is a point at which the reputation of a state for beauty and environmentalism can get in the way of sustainability.

How important is what we do in Vermont?  Well, it's just a dingy little scrap company.   We aren't very profitable.  And the reuse, the reuse I pride myself in, is sharply declining.
Valter: [talking about the importance of recycling] People sometimes say "But one single can?" One single can is of great importance. Because 99 is not 100, and that single one will make the difference.
99 não é 100
That quote is from Waste Land, a documentary I watched this morning with my wife and daughter.  It's by the Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz.   I won't go into a "spoiler" about the film, I want everyone to see it.  Or at least watch the interview with Valter, posted from youtube at the bottom of this blog post.

Environmental Justice and Environmental Malpractice.  That's the working title of the book I'm writing.  But in case I never successfully publish it, watch Waste Land.

Vik Muniz is a very successful fine artist in New York City's fine arts scene.  He goes back to Brazil for a visually stunning documentary featuring interviews with some of the people who live on the pickings from the Jardim Gramacho landfill outside of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Waste Land was awarded the "golden tomato" at for a rare 100% positive review status (68/68 critics gave it "thumbs up").   Really not difficult at all to watch.

What it captures is the same thing I'm always trying to convey.  The image of sad, sad, sad scrap pickers, there to make us feel guilty, is Made in the USA.

The people interviewed and portrayed in this documentary are poor, but there is an almost overwhelming sense of pride, that they are making their own living, that what they do benefits the environment, and that it matters.

The recurring theme is the alternatives for those who live in the city slums.   Robber.  Sex worker.  Drug dealer.   The people living at the landfill show their skill at telling PET from PVC bottles based on the sound of tapping the plastic.

What's especially interesting about the film are the scenes shot by Vik Muniz of his filmmaker collaborators.  Are they exploiting these people?  Are they going to be safe there?  Muniz captures the hand-wringing of the western exoticism of poverty.
"These are probably the roughest people you can think of. They're all drug addicts. It's like the end of the line. Check out the geography of this thing. It's like the end of the line. It's where everything not good goes, including the people." Vik Muniz, before the project
And Muniz famously shrugs it off.  Muniz was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and raised by a grandmother, and describes the luck that got him where he is in the USA.
I'd rather want everything and have nothing, than have everything and want nothing. Because at least when you want something your life has a meaning: it's worthwhile. From the moment you think you have everything, you have to search for meaning in other things. I spent half my life wanting everything and having nothing; and now I have everything and I don't want anything.
It shows that a recycling business is not just recycling trash.  It recycles people.  The people who work at Good Point Recycling in Vermont all have stories and points of view that I struggle to represent and capture.   The staff at the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources are also people, with their own stories.   I have to try to believe that they don't mean any harm.  They just never came to visit.   Not one person from Vermont ANR came to the Fair Trade Recycling Summit at Middlebury College.

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