Two documentaries on the lives of garbage pickers
FILM Has the landfill, junkyard, and lowly dumpster supplanted the factory as a site of documentary interest and even inspiration? Yerba Buena Center for the Arts features two 2010 docs this week to add to the growing list of recent films centering on scavenging, gleaning, dumpster diving, trash humping, and scrapping — activities illustrating resourcefulness in the shadow of colossal waste.
Scrappers zeroes in on the workaday routines and liabilities facing two laboring subjects, Oscar and Otis, good men who cruise Chicago's South Side for scrap metal. The film's three directors spent a couple of years in the passenger seat, long enough for their verité portrait of the scrappers' lives at work to be anchored in extenuating circumstances: a deportation scare for Oscar, a hospital stay for Otis, and most significantly the collapse of scrap prices as a result of dwindling home construction (the same ton of metal that sold for $200–<\d>$300 in 2007 only brought in 20 bucks in 2008).
Without recourse to a voice-over, Scrappers details economic unrest as well as the complex race and class hierarchies of Chicago's scrap scene. This is all secondary, however, to the film's enduring interest in learning how Oscar and Otis actually go about their work — noteworthy in a documentary field crowded with predigested arguments. The filmmakers take liberties in editing together the scrappers' talk into poetic monologues, but it's a small price for granting them autonomy in defining not only the necessities but also the dispensations of their work.
While Scrappers works to convey layers of ongoing experience, the Oscar-nominated Waste Land is witness to an exceptional intervention. The film follows Vik Muniz, a successful Brooklyn-based artist originally from São Paolo, as he spearheads a collaborative art project in Jardim Gramacho, a gigantic landfill outside Rio de Janeiro. Muniz first contemplates the site from his Brooklyn studio using land art's modern surveying tools, Google Earth and YouTube. Once on the ground, his initial disbelief at the scale of the landfill gives way to the more modest realization that many of the pickers working there don't view themselves as the wretched of the earth.
Waste Land director Lucy Walker omits Muniz's selection of a handful of the pickers as collaborators and subjects — a thorny process, one imagines — instead fleshing out the backstories of the (admittedly remarkable) chosen ones. They gather material from the dump to help Muniz fashion their iconic portraits back in the studio, with the proceeds of the finished work benefiting the pickers' labor association.