Two docs about South American life and politics show both the squalor of economic repression and the fight to change history – some use leftist tactics, others use art and garbage. Both films listen to the marginalized victims of privatization, pollution and poverty.

Melanie Sevcenko
Sevcenco currently lives in Berlin, where she works as a freelance writer, and for several documentary film initiatives.

Brazilian artist Vik Muniz says he really wants to change the lives of a group of people from Rio Janeiro using the same materials they deal with every day. With his latest grandiose art installation, beautifully depicted in Lucy Walker’s documentary Waste Land, Muniz most definitely accomplished his mission. Waste Land weeds through heaps of garbage and eventually comes up roses through the work of the impassioned Muniz.

The onceimpoverished youth in Sao Paulo was now determined to create a ground-shaking art piece that would do more than sell for a few hundred thousand dollars. Forming a creative bond and friendship with a small group of garbage-pickers, or Catadores – among them a collective leader, a bookworm, a cook, an eighteenyear-old mother – Muniz creates gigantic portraits of each of them by shaping mounds of refuse into breathtaking contours and dustings of dirt.

With the helping hands of the pickers, immaculate compositions are produced using rubbish plucked from the very mounds through which they sift. In reality, the portraits in Jardim Gramacho transform trash into high-end contemporary art. But the lives of his subjects and collaborators are changed significantly, not only through the money Muniz grosses, which he wholesomely donates to the landfill to improve workers’ conditions, but through the workers’ direct involvement in creating something fartherreaching than their daily labor. Director Lucy Walker’s exterior portrait of the artist Vik Muniz and his subjects can be attributed to Marxist theories about estranged labor, where the laborer himself becomes a servant of his object – the goods produced. The garbage-pickers witnessed in Waste Land are the doers of forced labor, thus they must work without the satisfaction of a need – the work is merely a means to satisfy needs that are external to it. The worker, too, sinks to the level of a commodity and the work itself is external to the worker – it does not belong to his intrinsic nature. “This isn’t a future,” says one exhausted picker.

Waste Land, Muniz

The fate of Jardim Gramacho’s people could have crossed frames and appeared in Gonzalo Arijón’s Eyes Wide Open – Exploring Today’s South America, as both films listen to the marginalized victims of privatization, pollution and poverty. Just as Arijón’s destitute South Americans are servants to the world’s market – so are the garbage-pickers slaves to the waste they toil amongst. The economic repression in Waste Land is one sliver of the greater pie that director Gonzalo Arijón slices up in Eyes Wide Open.

In the early 2000’s, after international agencies had privatized industry and annihilated public power, newly elected socialist leaders gave rise to herds of social movements with one ideal in common: another world is possible, one where the people believe in their politicians. Through interviews with locals and archival newscasts of presidential speeches, Arijón’s sojourns take us into both organized and boisterous revolutions – the Amazon Defense Coalition in Brazil, the mining industry in Bolivia, Santa Cruz separatist groups in opposition to Bolivia’s Morales rule, planting cooperatives in Venezuela, and the indigenous regions of Ecuador – where an urge for change is found at the forefront of each community, and people have already felt the positive repercussions of economic growth.

Eyes Wide Open functions first as personal realization, a document which reasserts Arijon’s old faith in his homeland, and secondly as a devastating history of South American Neoliberalism. But one might get the feeling that Arijon’s vision of South America is a little sugarcoated, a place where the Market God is finally replaced by the people at the center. Evo Morales did nationalize oil companies and Hugo did trade Venezuelan oil for doctors. But it’s risky to take the political pulse of an ever-changing conglomerate of countries in the face of the UN, the G-20, the G-3, and intercontinental tensions, in less than two hours.

Gonzalo Arijón

Eyes Wide Open is an optimistic love letter (but what’s wrong with a little sentimentality?) perforated by Arijón’s personal poetry. The film relies heavily on Arijón’s mentor, writer Eduardo Galeano, whose perspective steers the political position of the film through his diffuse interviews. Galeano claims that people need to view their fellow citizens with a horizontal gaze – essentially, the look of solidarity – which is Arijón’s South America. Like Peruvian filmmaker Heddy Honigmann did with Oblivion, Gonzalo Arijón has made a political film by going to the streets, the farms, the people – in essence, the mirror that answers the questions proposed by those in power.

After collaborating with some of Brazil’s poorest inhabitants, Vik Muniz knew that its people needed change – if not a radical change in economic position, at least an altered perspective. With his artwork, Muniz provides an extension from forced labor to life satisfaction. For the first time it seems, the Catadores of Jardim Gramacho became the masters of their own destinies. The pickers transcended commodity status and became works of art instead – true, art is often a commodity itself – but in this case it is one the laborers created with their own integrity, whose beauty is shared in homes and galleries around the world. As Walker shows us, each person behind the portrait feels a sense of pride, of vision, which ultimately frames their laborious tasks as ‘work with a purpose’ – and a life to be proud of.
that sentiment is also found within Arijón’s vision – the notion that being rich isn’t a question of money; that freedom starts with a full stomach – and the revolution goes on after the oil runs out.


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