“One man’s garbage is another man’s art”

ImageWhat satisfaction would come out of re-thinking the way we look at garbage? Well, if you ask Vik Muniz, he’d say spirit, pride and timeless works of art.

Waste Land, a documentary created by artist Vik Muniz, depicts the lives of a handful of catadores (garbage pickers), who make a living by collecting recyclable material from the world’s largest dump in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (known as “Jardim Gramacho”). In an area of Rio that is known for violence, drug trafficking, and inequality, Muniz offers a breath of fresh air by using art as a means to transform their trash into inspiring self-portraits.


This resource would be best served to a community ranging from the high school level onward. In particular, the film would best fit into the curriculum for a social science class (i.e. History). The movie acts as a modern day example of conditions that the marginalized population must endure (in some places of the world) today. It shows an example of how the unemployed resort to unique measures in order to create some source of an income. And, more importantly, it provides a peaceful means to resolve a problem; in this instance art has acted as such means (all the proceeds from Muniz’s work were given right back to the catadores, and used to build a library and create more educational opportunities). It also can help students who are more visual learners to depict what life has been like for the impoverished, especially immigrants in the early 20th century, and in what (peaceful) means they sought a better life. The movie can also be used in collaboration with the novel, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. Using the novel, along with the movie, helps students to realize the conditions that people even in the United States had to endure through just to make a living. Although the book is fictitious, the original intentions of Sinclair were to portray the life of an immigrant in the 20th century. Thus, utilizing both resources helps to humanize a part of our nation’s history.

In this regard (using in collaboration with The Jungle), the movie could also be used for an English literature curriculum (at the high school level).

While the movie is very relevant to several aspects of high school curriculums in the public school system, the movie itself could also prove to be a valuable resource for art clubs as well. Muniz’s use of unconventional materials to create masterpieces (for a philanthropic cause) may inspire another young artist to make a difference through art.

Ways to use this resource:

For this resource, one would need to acquire the movie (find out how at the bottom of the entry), and potentially the novel The Jungle. It’s suggested that the curriculum allow the students to engage in a dialogue about the movie, after watching it. Allow them to guide the conversation, which will permit you, as the instructor, to find out the central ideas that most students drew from the film.

Using this suggested model encourages a participatory model of learning. Make the students the “spectactors” (Freire, 1968), instead of the spectators. If they have more control over the discussion, the outcome will be more beneficial to the student and the teacher.

Due to the unconventional nature of the film (a man using garbage from a dump to create art that benefits society), Muniz’s art can help to ignite the creativity within the students, and challenges them to think outside the box. His film also helps to humanize the reality of the impoverished populace, and help students understand how fortunate they are (while also understanding the inequality around them). It displays a very comprehensive, international, yet human rights theme to peace education; while also exploring development education by understanding how to explore economic opportunities in the developing world.

The film can be found through iTunes , or through Netflix.

Helpful links:

PBS: Independent Lens- Waste Land

Waste Land (main site for the movie)

I originally came across the movie one evening when trying to find a movie to watch on Netflix. The film was featured in the “Documentary” queue on my main page. Because my significant other is from Rio de Janeiro, the film caught our attention and we decided to watch it.

Disclaimer: the movie is partially in English, and partially in Portuguese (Brazilian), but subtitles are provided. 

About allysonbowers

Senior at George Mason University, Allyson is studying Government & International Politics, Global Affairs (concentration in International Development). She currently serves as Student Body President at Mason, and works at the Department of State.

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