Walker, Lucy, Waste Land (Texts and Human Experiences)

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HSC English Advanced – Texts and Human Experiences – Study Guide


The really magical things are the ones that happen right in front of you. A lot of the time you keep looking for beauty, but it is already there. And if you look with a bit more intention, you see it.

Vic Muniz

Set on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, ‘Waste Land’ centres on Jardim Gramacho: the largest landfill site on Planet Earth. Artist Vik Muniz will here make this unordinary canvas his backdrop to paint portraits of the lives of its workers. Lucy Walker’s film aims to highlight the rejuvenating capacity of art and the beauty of the human experience. Waste Land hence makes a worthwhile choice of text for the HSC Common Module Texts and Human Experiencesby virtue of its multifaceted nature: a text which on one level speaks to us on shared human concerns while dually dealing with contextually pertinent issues.


Muniz recalls an event when he was rather poor and while living in Brazil. He attempted to break up a fight between two men, and was subsequently shot when while walking to his car. The shooter gave him some money that allowed him to travel to the United States. By Muniz’s unique insight into different world’s – one food in the first world, and one in the developing – we begin to learn more about the ways in which art may bridge culture across borders by its effectiveness in exploring the human experience.

Waste Land and the HSC Common Module Texts and Human Experiences

As with beginning any study of a text prescribed for the ‘Texts and Human ExperiencesModule, we must look to the rubric to consider the questions it invokes of us. We will hence be exploring the compositional intentions of Waste Land, as well as its literary contents, by the precepts of the HSC English Rubric outlines. As with all HSC modules, we must consider than any prospective HSC Examination question comes directly, and solely from the contents and associated meanings and words of those found in its respective Module and Elective Outline.

Individual and Collective Human Experiences in Waste Land

Rubric statement: In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences.

Inferred question: How does Waste Land manage to deepen our understanding of and represent individual and collective human experiences?

Waste Land remains a film that today informs our understanding of not only Brazilian catadores, nor the developing world as a whole, but too what makes and breaks us as individuals; otherwise affectionately known as ‘the human condition.There is no humanities course in the HSC, and hence, we come to study human experiences in the closest such subject we have: English. Muniz did not intend to travel to Brazil and to transforms the lives of the catadores while creating his artwork. Instead, he intended to allow them to reimagine what their lives could look like and introduce them to lessons along the way. The documentary is moving account of personal development and triumph. By these considerations, it becomes clear how we may understand more about transformation and the overcoming of adversity in this film – ultimately concluding us to ascertain the power of hope. We are allowed insight into the power of collectiveness, and the uniqueness of each individual through the medium of interviews, but ultimately we are introduced to the reality that humanity moves as one: the garbage-picker is inextricable from the white-collared worker.

Waste Land manages to represent and depend our understand of individual and collective human experiences in two major ways:

By informing us that most human concerns are universal and timeless.

One of the key achievements of your HSC Texts and Human Experiences essay should be to communicate the reality that human concerns are timeless. Whether your swath of thematic concerns includes the likes of adversity, hope and grief, your essay must stipulate and reaffirm your concern’s – as well as Waste Land as a whole’s – timelessness. The film — co-directed by João Jardim and Karen Harley, and photographed by Dudu Miranda — centres around this behemoth of a landfill site from every perspective – both figuratively and literally. Viewed from a distance, the pickers take the form of insects moving about over the piles of trash while scavenging birds circle their prey overhead. What appears from afar to be chaos, however, is really a microcosmic universe unto itself. Most of the workers, who earn $20 to $25 a day combing through the refuse, live at Jardim Gramacho, which receives 70 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s trash. How is focusing on such a niche, small community beneficial to our understanding of the human condition? This is what your essay should seek to resolve and answer.

By developing our understanding that all individuals stand in different relation to intrinsic human concerns, depending on their experiences and disposition.

Vic Muniz aims to conceive art with a conscience: this is to say, art that holds the capacity to influence societal transformation. Muniz did not expect to change himself, yet he did. Muniz reconnects with his Brazilian roots, even relocating to Brazil after filming had concluded.

Consider the abstract and somewhat symbolism and metaphor that garbage and recycling stand for — for reuse and redemption, for consumption and excess. And Walker includes extraneous conversations about the dump’s larger socioeconomic implications. As the camera glances at Gramachos vastness and way up at the mountains of trash and the safety-vested workers bent atop their peaks, Muniz observes that millionairestrash mixes here with that of the poor. Walker thinks thats more profound than it is. (Having Richie Rich’’ on the television as the film follows Suelem around her familys cramped shack is excessive, too.)

The Representation of Emotions in Waste Land

Rubric statement: They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences. Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and evaluate the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.

Inferred question: Examine how Waste Land represents human qualities and emotions arising from collective experiences. How has language shaped these representations in the form, mode and medium of Waste Land?

The film Waste Land was envisioned as a medium to capture the painting of the pickers of garbagein the Jardim Gramacho landfill in new light. Seven remarkable catadores become a work of art as Muniz conceives his masterpieces, leading his subjects to hope for a better existence. While working with the catadores, emotions are dug up that would not have been perceived from afar: the despair expressed on the catadores faces as they recount stories of their adversities; the dignity the catadores hold themselves with as they recount the learnings and tribulations surrounding their work; a sense of passion as they explain the practical dimensions of their occupation; and the heart-touching spirits that reveal themselves in tears at Vik’s final artwork. Isis, one of the pickers morosely expresses, Look Vikthis isnt a future(Walker). This film portrays how people who have reached the depths of their emotions, still manage to carry out environmental protectionism with pride.

Anomalies, Paradoxes and Inconsistencies in Waste Land

Rubric statement: Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting the responder to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.

Inferred question: How has Waste Land given insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations, inviting you to see the world differently, challenge assumptions, become enlightened with new ideas or reflect?

One of the most obvious paradoxes in the film is the reality that the work of garbage-pickers is inextricable from the works of those in the upper echelons of society despite obvious class alienation. It is worthy to consider the paradoxical transformation of garbage in this film as a medium to invoke change. As Muniz explains: “The beautiful thing about garbage is that it is negative: it’s something that you don’t use anymore; it’s what you don’t want to see. So if you are a visual artist, it becomes very interesting material to work with because it’s the most nonvisual of materials. You are working with something that you usually try to hide.” We begin too to see a paradoxical relationship between the wealthiest of Brazil and morality – that the two become seemingly mutually incompatible: ”It’s not bad to be poor,” asserts Valter dos Santos, “It’s bad to be rich, at the height of fame, with your morals a dirty shame.” And with that, the 54-year-old garbage picker agrees to participate in the art project proposed by Vik Muniz, as well as the documentary about that project, Waste Land. With the camera on him, Valter goes on, “It will raise awareness of all us pickers. You didn’t ask me, but I’m going to introduce myself: I’ve been a picker for 26 years.”

Storytelling: Lives and Cultures in Waste Land

Rubric Statement: Students may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.

Inferred Question: Consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.

Muniz explains that, from a distance, these smaller pieces of waste each tell a story, they speak to an idea or allude to a facet of our human experience. But just as the art indicates a range of ways of seeing, so too do conversations among Muniz and his team members, who mull over the potential effects of their intervention. Cameraman Fabio Ghivelder notes, “We have to be careful. I can see already how delicate the whole situation is, of having them there [in London for a show] for their mind.” Muniz insists that increased exposure, more seeing and being seen, provides to be fruitful in connecting people from different experiences of the human condition. “It’s hard for me to imagine what would do much damage to them to do worse than what has been done to them already,” he argues. If they don’t want to go back to the landfill, that might be good, he thinks, “They get to see another reality and that changes their way of thinking.” Which is not to say they will be able to change their material lives. As Waste Land follows Muniz, Tiao, and Suelem grapple with such questions surrounding the artist’s relationship with his subjects, you as a responder must consider the responsibility of documentaries and documentarians toward their subjects, both Muniz and the pickers, whose openness and boldness are admirable yet also concerning.

’Waste Land’ Medium – Documentary

In your HSC English course, you are provided with an array of texts composed in varying mediums. This means that it is crucial to ensure that your analysis is medium-specific i.e. that it is reverent to the form of your text. Some of the most crucial devices or techniques of documentary-making to consider are:


Considering the voice-over in documentaries allows you to engage with the text in a manner similar to reading a written book: you may analyse for literal similes, metaphors and the likes. It also allows you to consider the way in which tone and register is used to shape meaning.

Direct and indirect interviews

Never overlook the integrity and significance of interviews, both formal and informal. Considering interview structure, line-of-questioning and the nature of subsequent responses will allow you to consider individual human experiences as provided by the conduit of a single individual’s perspective.


A montage is a form of filmic sequence which conveys ideas visually in an ordered, sometimes overlaid manner. Narrative montages make use of a sequence of shots as indicative oftime passing. Ideational montages connect actions with words, and are commonplace in documentaries


Consider the following extract from an interview with the film’s primary director:

“I think that the visual style is very much the style that I like, which is getting as many beautiful shots that you can with the best cinematographer and the best equipment that you can use. We received money from the Brazilian government and were allowed to shoot the best possible film images. The surprise was that I did not know what music I was going to use. The music in the end that I chose was not Brazilian. In the editing, we found this great electronic score and it was very effective and very universal and cinematic music. The style of the film is very much like my previous films and possibly makes for a documentary.”

Lucy Walker, Interview with Bijian

One Man’s Trash…

Consider the ways in which rubbish is reconfigured in the film to represent much more than individualised, compartmentalised entities. By reconfiguring smaller elements, the part becomes ‘whole’. In this way, Waste Land begins to stand for much more than a tale about recycling. Indeed, the process of renewing rubbish items stands as a microcosmic allegory to analogise the lives of the catadores (garbage pickers).


Walker’s focus on the catadores, who live out a relatively undesirable existence comprised of scavenging, manages effective insight into the way humanity treats notion of class, order, humanity and hope. The title avowedly eponymously alludes to TS Eliot’s poem, but what Walker instead intends to surprise is with is not despair and bareness, but a reservoir of hope among the lower rungs of a society. Some may interpret the film’s feel-good optimism as naive, yet Muniz’s attitude itself open to question and so is yours as a responder, and ultimately as a HSC student. Indubitably, however, the film manages a bold raid into an unknown territory both geographic and conceptual into a realm that the most prosperous among us prefer not to think about.

Mr. Muniz, who appears oddly ecstatic throughout the duration of the film, stipulates his awe at how the educated elite really believe theyre better than other people.He has a mystic faith in the power of art as a medium for transformation. He fervently believes that he is transforming his subjectslives for the better by showing them another place,even if they never leave Jardim Gramacho.

Muniz’s initial purpose in creating his masterpieces was to paintthe catadores alongside garbage to capture the spirit of their work. However, his collaboration with these inspiring characters as they appropriated classic artworks with photographic images of themselves out of debris and trash reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their existence. Walker, Jardim and Harley in this way have great access to the entire process and, in the end, offer stirring evidence of the transformative capacity of art and the make-up of the human expereince

Thematic Concerns

Identity and Perception

Brazilian class-structure sees catadores sitting at the bottom of the heap pile alongside a dehumanising perception of their profession as comprising of reckless scavengers, desperate to make ends meet. Muniz’s project seeks to shed a stronger light on each individual pickers individuality. By the power of his art, and the shooting lens of director Walker, each catadore is detailed, questioned and humanised. Even more crucial than considering the perception that Brazilian society has of the catadores, is how the catadores perceive themselves. When interviewed by a talk show host, Tião corrects the interviewer, explaining that they are not pickers of garbage, but pickers of recyclable materials. This is an important distinction, because it signifies the reality that the catadores gather valuable materials that they know have greater potential, helping to preserve the environment.

Hope and Determination

The film sheds light on the reality that the catadores lead a particular brutal and harsh lifestyle, their existence is unstable, transient and turbulent. The vast majority of them are ill and away from their families to work, or are alone and with no family left. Their hard work symbolises a hope for a new and improved life- a life that Muniz shows them through his art. Suelem, a pregnant 18 year old picker with two children already explains she is proud of her work. She takes pride in what she does because she is not selling her body or dealing drugs, “like most pretty girls do”. This statement allows us to realise that although Suelem could be at home, carrying out the work that most girls partake in, she chooses to work miles away from her family to bring home enough money to support their livelihood. For some of the catadores, their self-perception changed as they helped create art and saw themselves as beautiful, meaningful works of art. Realizing their self-worth allowed them to see the world in a new light and embrace the will to change. In essence, the “will to change” in the catadores allows them to perceive a new hope in their life: their collective efforts begin to amount to greater achievements for their community that could not have been accomplished alone; this idea is in someway, made evident by the microcosmic use of individualised garbage debris to create a collective masterpiece. As Muniz explains of garbage, “You are working with something that you usually try to hide.

Art and Society

The relationship between artist, subject and society is perhaps the documentary’s most compelling agenda. While it is not entirely out of the ordinary for documentaries to discuss their effects on the lives of their subjects, this film incorporates discussions of how the art project, including a trip to New York, might effect change onto the pickers’ perspectives. Muniz attempts to shift away from the oft secluded world of fine art, whose extremely wealthy patrons often view art as a financial investment with an elitist agenda. In contrast, the catadores with whom Muniz collaborates have not been to a museum, let alone expected to see themselves hanging on gallery walls. The film invites responders to consider the worthy recipients and beneficiaries of art that created and how art may be made with a social conscience. Its also worth considering how art is appraised.

Muniz becomes a hero to the catadores; showing them how their situations could possibly be different, leading them to a remarkably conceptualised ‘new life’. In this way, we begin to see the way that art may shape our perceptions of our future, and capture the collective experiences of individuals. We see this in the remarkable transformation of one picker in particular. Tiao dos Santos, the president of the Jardim Gramacho landfill, is photographed in an derelict bathtub to appropriate the late painting, The Death of Maratfrom 1793. The painting is sold for 50,000 US dollars, and Tiao plans to use that money to give back to the catadores and to the environment as much as possible. The transformation Tiao undergoes during the film is enlightening, from being disheartened and discouraged at the beginning of the film, yet by the end, after witnessing what ambition could give, he is prepared to take on a whole new life. In essence, the films overall message is one of renewal in both perception and potential.

Muniz did not intend to change the lives of the catadores while he was working in Brazil. However through his artwork the catadores are able to reimagine what their lives could be like. The importance of life, how it is lived, and the choices made are all part of the film’s central message. Magna makes a particularly potent claim when in pointing out that Americans are notably careless with what they discard as trash, not considering where their waste winds up. Valter Santos claims just weeks before his death, People sometimes say one single can?One single can is of great importance because 99 is not 100 and that single one will make the difference. The film aims to change our perception regarding how we relate to the world around us, realising that 99 does not intact equal 100, and that our actions have repercussions. With hard work and a vision of what life could be, anything is achievable for not only the individual pursuits of the catadores, but for humanity collectively as a whole.


Muniz explains that “the moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment. A combination of sounds turns into music. And that applies to everything.” Waste Land, at its core, attempts to capture these moments on film to be beheld by responders baring witness to the power of hope produced by creativity. Discarded items are collected, sifted and rearranged into newly transformed valuables that hold the capacity to sustain life, livelihood and freedom. The assemblage of recyclable materials on the floor when filmed from above transfigure and transform into an exquisite portrait and work of refined art. When the catadores pose as famous figures of classical artworks, they repurpose and reimagine an artistic narrative that would never focus on subjects such as themselves. The re-interpreted artworks actively breathe new life and immediacy into paintings of times gone by for newly imagined purposes The movie is otherwise hater scrupulous. In fact, the film eventually centres around the scrupulousness of Muniz’s enterprise, and, ultimately, of any such semi-philanthropic or pity-borne art. An argument among Muniz, his wife, and Ghivelder about whether it is morally sound to transport everybody to London for an auction is the moral crux of the movie: Will the art change them, is it fair to assume that they be willing to return to Gramacho, and if they do not, is that a fair or just ?


Waste Land is a film that manages to capture how individual collective experiences may be aligned to fulfil a greater good. It is a text that focuses on the pursuit of hope, the power of art and the fullest capacity of human initiative. Studying ‘Waste Land’ as part of the Texts and Human Experiences Module allows us to appreciate the human condition as a reality that comprises of challenge and trump in unequal amounts: that some among us work harder for less, while some work less for more. The human pursuit of egalitarianism is ultimately one that is about perception of ourselves and others as much as it is about distribution of opportunity. It is through Walker’s lens that her unique storytelling manages effective insight into what makes and breaks us as humans.

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