Monday, November 22, 2010

TV Bites: Waste Land

Brigadeiros (Brazilian Chocolate Truffles)

I spent a lot of wasted time thinking about a film to do for Thanksgiving. Now Woody Allen especially has a thing for the holiday and almost every movie he makes features people eating turkey (Broadway Danny Rose, Annie Hall, and Hannah & Her Sisters are all examples). But I just did Broadway Danny Rose and didn't feel like diving into another Allen film back to back. I guess there's Pocahontas.... but yeah, no.

So I had abandoned the idea of doing any sort of tie-in until I realized I couldn't stop thinking about this movie I saw at the Austin Film Festival last month. It was really the ONLY film I was excited about seeing at the festival as I have been a fan of artist Vik Muniz for over a decade and have often said he is my new favorite artist. Often people have no idea who I'm talking about though, so I'm thrilled that this film will give him more every day recognition outside art circles.

From the moment I first saw his Sugar Children series at ICP in New York (using sugar, Muniz made portraits of children of sugar plantations workers in the Caribbean), I was hooked. He is my favorite kind of artist, clever - one who makes me smile or laugh - and think at the same time. So when AFF added this documentary about his amazing project in his homeland Brazil's favelas, I was on it. And that it was made by Lucy Walker, who made the excellent documentary Devil's Playground, amongst others.... I was very jazzed.

A few days after seeing it, I started to think about whether I could cover it here at Chef du Cinema. It is a chance to do some Brazilian food and write about a documentary, I thought. But I haven't done a movie that's currently in the theaters... as if I had rules I couldn't break here (other than not do movies from my list of movies I'll never do). And so then I thought, this is a movie about people who have very little, at the bottom of the world's food chain, but through one man's artistic vision they are given the opportunity to feel significant. And in the spirit of what I think Thanksgiving should be, by giving these people a way to see themselves, to change their lives, they immediately and without question, see it as an opportunity to help the lives of their fellows. Because if you just care about yourself, you're missing the point.

If I may be so bold as to say so, we're all in the world together. There is no reason why anyone on this planet goes to bed hungry. There is plenty of food. It is only greed and a deficiency of empathy that allows other human beings to die of poverty or starvation. The reality is that there is plenty of money and resources to ensure that everyone on the planet has a roof over their head, clean water to drink, and some dignity. Its sole obstacle is greed and a lack of caring. It's that simple.

So, pardon my ranting, but it's the time to give thanks and celebrate those who do care. If you'd like to do something, instead of a "buy stuff" section this posting, I've put up links to organizations that I like (some big, some small) that do good work. Happy Thanksgiving....

UPDATE 4-20-11: Waste Land can now be streamed and home-rented from Netflix, and streamed and purchased from Amazon.


"99 is not 100."

Vik Muniz was born in Brazil in 1961 and raised under a repressed regime with great limits on free speech. "I was forced to learn to communicate in a very specific way, in a sort of semiotic black market," he said. "You couldn’t really say what you wanted to say, you had to invent ways of doing it."

He began working in advertising there, but after being shot in a street fight (on his way to receive an advertising award), he convinced the shooter to pay him enough compensation money to come to the United States in 1983. He lived in Chicago and then New York and began to explore this idea, very early on, of creating art with different kinds of unexpected media, and referencing great masterpieces of painting and photography. In a sense, the referencing validates or elevates Muniz's choice of media, whether it's chocolate, spaghetti, clouds, or thread, into "real" art. But also it reduces the masterpiece back to something more accessible to the viewer. And further, it generally transcends what might otherwise be a gimmick to access something deeper.

Because Vik is so prolific, some people are tempted to write him off,” said Peter Boswell, a curator at the Miami Art Museum. “Even at the beginning, people were saying that it was just clever work that didn’t have substance. But I think people who say that aren’t looking very deeply."

When DeBeers hired Muniz to make something with diamonds, he created portraits of celebrity women with them. “I thought doing something gross or disgusting would be too obvious, so I did something very glamorous,” he said. “The idea is that people would buy it as a social experience, since having pictures of diamonds gives people the impression of having diamonds themselves.” Akin in ways to cutting out photos of celebrities and putting them on your wall makes you feel connected to them. So there's the association between the precious stones and the celebrity. But then you might consider the man-made preciousness of diamonds, and the blood spilled to bring them to market, and compare that to our collective unhealthy obsession with celebrity. We dig into celebrities' lives, often spilling blood as well. Is how we mine the lives of celebrity so different from how we mine diamonds? Or what of the lives of those “sugar children?” Do we value their lives as much as we value the sugar?

Or when you see the Mona Lisa, nudging through a massive crowd to get a glimpse of it, it's completely inaccessible to connect with. You see it, but you can't feel it. But when Muniz reproduces it in peanut butter and jelly, it "rehumanizes" it. While acknowledging its iconic status as just a brand (a la Warhol), Muniz reconnects us to the fact that it is something made by just another person. But can something made from peanut butter be art of a DaVinci scale? Is the illusion that we forget we are looking at peanut butter or that we convince ourselves we are seeing a work of art?

"[To me, i]t’s not about making people fall for a really perfect illusion, as much as it is to make - I usually work at the lowest threshold of visual illusion," he said. "Because it’s not about fooling somebody. It’s actually about giving somebody a measure of their own belief - how much you want to be fooled. That’s why we pay to go to magic shows and things like that."

"The magician as well as the artist makes a living by manipulating stuff people generally take for granted," he said. "No matter what people say, art, directly or indirectly, has always had to deal with illusion."

By 1998, he was showing work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. By 2002, he was an artist in residence at Bard College. And since, his work has gained worldwide recognition and made him a celebrity back home in Brazil. But while money and celebrity would satisfy some, Muniz believes he has a responsibility to share both his wealth and his knowledge.

"One of my greatest heroes is John Dewey, who always spoke of the individual's responsibility to pass on one's experience in the form of education," he said, back in 1998 when he was first getting real recognition. "I teach photography, and drawing for photographers. (I do that more often than I clean up after myself.) Teaching, like writing and editing, is another way to pass on to others things that I consider important for everybody. I am always thinking of the responsibility which we all have to leave something for others."

Waste Land began as a collaborative project between Muniz and filmmaker Lucy Walker. "[W]e thought if we were going to make a film together, what film could it be?," Walker said. "Vik wondering if he could change people’s lives using art was just such an interesting question, so I knew this world was going to be amazing."

What they decided upon was to venture into the world of a favela on the edge of one of Rio's massive garbage dumps and the people who work in the dump, collecting recyclable trash which they sell for money to live on. These places are generally extremely dangerous, rife with crime, drug dealers, and gangs. But interestingly, as Walker noted, "Rio has the highest rate of recycling in the world, even though their pickers are faced with intense problems, money-wise and health-wise."

"If we hadn’t found a place that was safe enough to work in, I don’t know if we would have proceeded with the project," said Walker. "Vik didn’t want to do it because he felt the garbage dumps were very, very dangerous places in Brazil - dead bodies and drugs can all be hidden in the garbage and therefore it’s very, very dangerous to get anywhere near it with a camera. It was through Fabio, the director of Vik’s studio, that we found this one landfill where we felt the security and the administration was such that it was safe enough to go in. The workers wear Day-Glo vests and no children are allowed."

"Each material has a meaning," said Muniz. "So using garbage... It's a repugnant, a repulsive material. Something we primarily try to hide. The whole structure (the way we design our cities, our buildings) acts as though our waste is invisible. For instance whatever we recycle we put in transparent bags, but the other stuff we put in opaque black bags. The thought of people looking through our garbage is annoying, because we know that that somehow defines us. So garbage is an interesting material to work with because you associate it with so many things."

"You go to a garbage dump expecting drug addicts and then you find people reading Shakespeare, or a woman cooking up lovely, tasty meals with the past-sale-date meat being tossed off the trucks," Walker said.

The film focuses on a group of these catadores, Portuguese for "human scavenger" or "rubbish collector" whom Muniz chooses to make portraits of. The catadores help make the giant portraits and then Muniz photographs them. Upon seeing themselves depicted in an artistic way, it transforms their views of themselves as human refuge into human beings. Muniz then sold the photographs at an auction in London and so far has brought in over $350,000 which has all gone to the catadores who have built a library, computer lab, and retraining facilities to allow them to get better jobs away from the dump, which apparently is soon to close.

The really magical things are the ones that happen right in front of you,” Muniz said. “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.

As I write this, the film has garnered several festival awards and a nomination for the International Documentary Association Awards.


If we were any poorer, we’d be dead,said Jorge Eliécer Ospina, a waste picker from Bogotá, Colombia.

Waste pickers are the de facto recycling system in much of the world," said Neil Tangri, climate change director of the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA). "If not for their work, the waste problem would be much worse than it already is. But they can do much more if they are given investment, opportunities, and above all, respect.”

In fact, waste pickers are not just found in Brazil, but exist in more countries around the world than you may imagine. From Lagos to Manila, from Bangkok to Bombay, there are people (often mostly children - in places like Phnom Penh, waste pickers comprise a large percentage of children below 18 years of age - 51% in 1998) who are doing the world's recycling. According to GAIA, there are about 15 million people in cities across the developing world who survive by collecting rubbish.

As shown in Waste Land, the "catadores" (generally called "waste pickers" or simply "scavengers," but also known in other parts of Latin America as "recicladores," in France "les glaneurs," in Egypt "zebaleen" and in other parts of Africa as "reclaimers") have started to organize. In 2008, waste pickers from over 40 countries met each other for the first time at a conference in Bogotá, Columbia.

"Hearing these experiences gives us a motive to keep struggling," said Silvio Ruiz from the organizing body, the Bogotá Association of Recyclers, whose involvement in the organization of waste pickers began when he co-founded a cooperative at the age of 14. "It is just a matter of time. In Latin America, we've been organizing ourselves for decades; in Africa and elsewhere, they're just beginning the process."

And as they organize, waste pickers have started to make their way to Climate Change conferences around the world, looking not just for some recognition and respect, but to take a seat at the table and offer their ground up perspective on how we can keep the world from, literally, being buried in garbage.

One hurdle is that many underdeveloped countries are being paid by overdeveloped nations, sadly supported by the United Nations, to simply burn rubbish, which earns "carbon credits" for the big polluting countries so they can announce to the world they are reducing greenhouse gases. But actual recycling doesn't play much of a role.

"These companies are burning waste and making briquettes from it. What this means is we cannot make compost anymore, we are not able to send the materials for recycling," said 23-year old Maya Khodave, who is a leader of an Indian waste pickers union. "For one ton of paper we gather for recycling, we save 17 trees."

Governments would rather contract big companies to either incinerate or bury the waste,” said Leila Iskandar from the African Waste Pickers Network. “Incinerating or burying waste results in global warming which has caused climate change.”

Not surprisingly, this program of carbon credit trading has been riddled with corruption. Even worse, as noted in a recent article in the The Guardian UK newspaper, "Incinerator plants are some of the largest sources of urban protests in both rich and poor countries, with people living near them, or downwind of them, concerned over cancers and other illnesses."

It's not just that governments are ignoring waste pickers, but in some cases, governments are attacking them. In countries like Turkey and Argentina, police and military have been sent in to tear down housing settlements and warehouses where the waste pickers live and store their recycling.

But there are some organizations being created to work with the pickers, like GAIA and Waste Ventures. But there are also more grassroots efforts, such as a group of students from MIT who were in Brazil this summer teaching catadores how to convert the diesel engines of garbage trucks to run on biofuel, using the very discarded cooking oil they already collect.

The Green Grease Project, as it's known as, in September, spoke at a USAID/Scientists Without Borders sponsored forum at the UN. Student member Angela Hojnaki said that the catadores spend 20% of their own money to pay for fuel, and that this project will help save them money and will simultaneously recycle vast amounts of waste.


Well, I was almost going to make some bolinhos, which can be made sweet, like donuts, or savory with fish, but opted to go with another bite-sized round Brazilian treat. Once I did, however, I discovered an article in Food & Wine in which celebrity chef Daniel Boulud (beware annoying music) made some bolinhos for a party at Muniz's casa. So, you can take that recipe and give it a whirl, if you'd like. But I gave in to my sweet tooth and these chocolate bites will be perfect to bring to a Thanksgiving dessert party I've been invited to.

Brigadeiros are a Brazilian docinho, or sweet (also what you call your "sweetie") made with condensed milk and other ingredients (usually fruits, nuts, chocolate) and are very popular to have at parties. They are sold both by street vendors and in shops. Brigadeiro means "brigadier" in Portuguese and the sweet is named after one Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes.

According to WiseGeek:"This popular chocolate treat was named after the Brazilian hero, Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes. This Brazilian Air Force brigadier general was famous for helping to put an end to a communist coup attempt in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s and running for Brazilian president in 1946. Legends report that Brigadeiro Eduardo Gomes was a handsome and dashing chap bachelor. A group of young ladies in Rio apparently thought the Brigadiero looked good enough to eat, so they created a chocolate delicacy in his honor and named the candy after his military rank."

The story which is found on Wiki and other places explains that during WWII, ships were rarely coming from Europe and thus depriving Brazilians of their favorite European fruits and nuts that were snack foods of choice. At the same time, the Swiss corporation Nestle (see how they're depleting local water resources both in Brazil and the US) introduced their Nesquick product and condensed sweetened milk cans and forever changed the culture of the country. Those two ingredients pretty much make up the recipe for Brigadeiros.

But, like many things on Wiki, I have some questions. First, "Brazil is a very rich country of tropical fruits." And there is a nut named after the country. Also, Brazil is one of the main growers of cocoa beans. Why did Brazilians get hooked on combining a processed powdered chocolate product and sweetened milk product? Were they so Euro-centric that they wouldn't eat their locally produced fruits & nuts? Anyone got an answer?

But with those questions asked, they are addictively delicious. Recipes online seem to vary only in amounts of other ingredients but all start out with a 14-ounce can of condensed sweetened milk. What that tells us is that the amounts of chocolate and butter, whether to add vanilla extract and how much, is purely one of personal choice. So if you want it more chocolaty, add more. If you want to try some alcohol in it, go for it. You want to make up your own toppings, no rules here. There are even coconut brigadeiros using coconut milk.

Now go make some and sneak them into the movie theater with you. Or, to have at your Thanksgiving dinner. As always.... cook, watch, eat and enjoy!

Brigadeiros (Brazilian Chocolate Truffles)
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makes 8-10

1 can sweetened condensed milk (14 ounces), whole or fat-free
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 tablespoons cocoa powder (some recipes suggest Nesquik, but regular cocoa powder is fine)

Toppings: coconut flakes, chocolate sprinkles, ground nuts, powdered sugar, cocoa powder (see 2nd note)

Add milk, vanilla extract and butter in non-stick pot or pan and heat on LOW heat.

When butter melts, add cocoa powder.

Stir with non-stick spoon or spatula. Keep stirring, never stop stirring. Don't walk away. Don't answer the phone. Do nothing but stir. If you even look away it will burn. Continue stirring until mixture thickens and starts to pull away from bottom of the pot. It will pop and bubble as it cooks - that's good, but keep stirring. About 10 minutes total till gluey-paste-like.

Turn off heat and continue to stir until it stops bubbling, then pour into a large glass or similar dish/plate and spread out with non-stick spatula. Let sit for about 30 minutes until completely cool to touch. It should not run at all and you should be able to turn the plate upside down and it will be firm. You should be able to run your fingers on top of it without it sticking to your hands.

Coat your hands in butter (or oil if you must) and, using a soup spoon, scoop up a small ping-pong sized amount of chocolate goop. Roll in preferred topping and make into ball. Put each in a little paper cup holders to serve.

NOTE: You might also consider non-traditional additions into the pot, such as a little dark rum, coconut rum, or orange liqueur....

NOTE: Traditionally, it's chocolate sprinkles as preferred topping. I made a mix of 2T cocoa powder, 1T ancho chile powder, 1T cinnamon to roll some of the brigadeiros. You might also want to try ginger, coriander or other spices.

Waste Land Official Site
PBS Independent Lens Waste Land Website
Vik Muniz Official Site
Worst Possible Illusion: The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz (another documentary on Muniz)
Reflex: A Vik Muniz Primer

Hero Rats
Doctors Without Borders
Reporters Without Borders
Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
Amnesty International
Waste Ventures
Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives
Capital Area Food Bank of Texas

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