"Hollyworld" is a semi-regular series covering Hollywood's impact on the world and celebrity culture around the globe.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — A man who has worked elbow-deep in a Brazilian garbage dump since childhood is poised to set foot on the red carpet at the Oscars this weekend.
The unlikely Hollywood turn for the Rio garbage recycler, Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos, 32, comes thanks to the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Waste Land.” The film follows a group of impoverished trash-pickers at Latin America’s largest landfill. They team up with Brazilian artist Vik Muniz to create self-portraits using the discarded material they work with each day.
The movie bills itself as a celebration of art’s power to transform the human spirit, but dos Santos — leader of a pickers’ association and a key figure in the film — is hoping for a transformation of another kind. The Jardim Gramacho landfill is set to close next year. The pickers, more than 1,000 of them, need a new place to earn their living.
“Everyone is afraid of the future,” dos Santos said in an interview at the association’s steel and cinder block recycling center, which was remodeled with the help of proceeds from Muniz’s art.
If the pickers can’t keep gathering and selling recyclables somewhere else, “it will be the end of the world for us,” dos Santos said. “The end of the world. That’s it.”
Because the pickers work informally for cash, most lack the documents necessary to find jobs in Brazil’s notoriously bureaucratic formal economy.
“There are so many of us that don’t know how to do anything else,” said Claudia de Lima, 43, as she sorted bottles in a black halter top. “My whole family works here.”
The stylish mother of five stooped to pluck a green plastic bottle from a pile of crushed clear ones. She’s been working here for 28 years, she said. Her family sorts trash, too — her mother, sons, siblings — and this is the only profession most of them know.
“It’s going to be sad if ends,” she said.
Within the grim constraints of Rio’s informal economy, recycling yields a survivable wage, at least for some.
“I came here because of the money,” said Josue Santos, 42, who says he quit construction three years ago to do this. As he dragged a sofa-sized, 100-pound bag of smashed soda bottles under a hot sun, Santos explained the economics of chasing garbage trucks.
The prices of recyclables change weekly but, generally, a 100-pound bag of crushed plastic bottles sells for about $30, Santos said. On a good day a fast picker can gather as many as four or five bags worth of bottles, he said, but a worse day or a slower picker may produce just one. Santos said he works alongside his wife and young son and together they make between $400 and $600 per week.
This helps explain why so many of the pickers — "catadores" in Portuguese — stay at the dump for years. For some, the pay is the same or better than the $140 the World Bank estimates an average Brazilian takes home each week. Santos says it took him a month working construction to make what he does in a week of recycling.
Still, the money comes in exchange for filthy, grueling work. The moment a truck disgorges a fresh load of trash, a crowd of pickers scramble onto the pile, hands moving quicker than the eye, tearing into plastic bags, sweeping aside rotten fruit and plucking recyclables from the stinking mess. The slow, the lazy, the weak need not apply.
“It’s not anyone who can be there,” said Joao Jardim, Waste Land’s Brazilian co-director, who spent weeks shooting many of the film’s landfill scenes. “It’s not like a beggar would survive there. Not at all. You need strength to make a living and survive.”
The work is dangerous, too. Garbage trucks from all over the region, 900 per day, come to Gramacho at all hours. Wearing hats under the tropical sun and headlamps in the dark, many pickers root through trash in the path of huge trucks and earthmovers that pass just inches away.
“The biggest danger is being run over by the bulldozer, or suffering an accident with the trucks,” dos Santos said. Another hazard comes from reaching for trash too soon, or pulling back too late, and catching a hand in a garbage truck’s hydraulic compacter.
“We have a lot of mutilations, particularly the hands and fingers,” dos Santos said.
As leader of an association of catadores, dos Santos is among a growing number of pickers who say the work doesn’t have to be this way. They’re fighting to take part in a government-contracted recycling program slated to be launched after Gramacho closes down. In addition to providing a more sanitary dump site — Gramacho’s 90 million tons of waste sit on a marsh beside the polluted Guanabara Bay — the government plan calls for recycling to be sorted on safe sites away from the landfill.
Dos Santos says the trick will be making sure the pickers associations, and not well-connected business interests, get the recycling contracts. Rio’s pickers have spent decades being invisible and dos Santos said he’s hoping international cinematic exposure will make their demands harder to ignore.
“Our people are starting to think of themselves as citizens, starting to believe they have rights — the film helped create this,” he said. “To see people be able to live with dignity, with basic sanitation, that would be the best Oscar I could win.”
Winning the golden statue itself holds little interest, he said. Press him enough, though, and he’ll admit to having a mild case of Hollywood fever. Angelina Jolie is as famous here as anyplace else, and he’s understandably curious what she’s like in person. He’s been told Jolie has the sort of hotness that leaves a man mute.
“I want to see for myself,” he said.
His wife, he added, wants him to come home with snapshot of Will Smith.