From Eliot to Fitzgerald to Walker
Updated: Feb 21, 2019
Lucy Walker's Waste Land massaged distant memories of my childhood and harkened back to sublime lines written by Eliot and Fitzgerald.
As a Brazilian myself, the tales of melancholy hiding behind the forced smiles of the catadores (waste pickers) were all too familiar. Years ago, I volunteered for a charity in a slum in São Paulo that was much like Jardim Gramacho in Rio. The charity felt small and insignificant next to the goliaths of corruption, violence, and fear.
Despite the truth of these troubles, in Brazil, we are expected to put our best face forward. We are told to be courteous and polite, even joyful, when interacting with others. This might partly explain why Irma says that she is happy to be working as a chef in the middle of the garbage dump.
But eventually the catadores come out from behind a veil of poise and entrust us, the audience, with their secrets. As Tião and Isis reveal, they feel distressed and helpless, not confident and optimistic.
But these revelations only partly answer the question posed by Eliot in "The Waste Land," where the speaker asks: "What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow / Out of this stony rubbish?"
Fitzgerald replies by turning our gaze to the rubbish found in our own souls, regardless of social status or class. His novel depicts a waste land "where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-gray men who move dimly and are already crumbling through the powdery air."
But Walker discovers a different truth in the waste land of Rio: in the midst of the dirt, we find sparkling souls.
The catadores are not weak victims of fate. In fact, they are stronger than us wasteful ones who expect them to do the dirty work for us. Valter tells us that he is proud to be a catador and says, "the fight is long, comrade, but the victory is certain." He also advises us that he is not bothered by his poverty, because "it's bad to be rich at the height of fame with your morals a dirty shame."
Indeed, it is on that dusty soil where they have learned the true meaning of honour and perseverance - a perseverance maintained by a fragile hope.
The catadores persevere not only in their daily grind to survive in a maze of uncertainty and optimism, but they also persevere with their trust in us, the audience. They do not tell their stories boastfully, but they do tell them with a sincerity that is refreshingly human.
And their vulnerable honesty shamed me. My own attempts to masquerade as a confident storyteller fall short of their understanding of why we even tell stories in the first place - not to show how superhuman we are, but to show how human we are.
And it is in our humanity that we find real beauty - in our rubbish, in our muck, in our waste. This is what makes Vik Muniz's art so breathtaking.