Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Religion & Ethics Newsweekly‘s Kim Lawton to discuss the complex path to sainthood in the Catholic Church, and the upcoming beatification of Pope John Paul II on on Sunday, May 1 at the Vatican.
Inside Thirteen: What are the qualifications for being declared a saint in the Catholic Church?
Kim Lawton: A lot of religious traditions have holy people or people they refer to as saints. But, the Roman Catholic Church has a very unique, complicated process that has to take place in order for someone to be declared a saint. It can take years – centuries, in some cases. First off, a local bishop will authorize what’s called a cause, a case to be investigated about whether this person was indeed worthy of becoming declared a saint. They do a very thorough investigation of everything that person wrote, said and did to get a sense of whether they lived a holy life – a life of heroic virtue. All that evidence and documentation then gets put together and if it appears that the person did live a life of heroic virtue, they are declared “venerable.” After that, they start looking for whether or not a miracle happened that could be attributed to the intercession of the potential saint. They have a pretty rigorous standard of looking at any reported miracles, assessing whether or not it’s something that could be explained by any other means. If a miracle has been found, the person gets beatified – meaning that they are called “blessed.” The miracle is seen as confirmation that the person really is in heaven. After that, they have to find a second miracle that has taken place after beatification. If that is verified, and only then, can someone be declared a full saint.
IT: What does the beatification ceremony itself entail?
KL: A beatification ceremony is a celebration, basically, that says the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church are acknowledging that this person is someone who’s blessed, someone that is indeed in heaven. Usually a mass is involved and lots of music.
IT: There has been a lot of controversy over the rapid decision to beatify Pope John Paul II. How did this come about so quickly in this instance, and what makes this case so unique?
Pope John Paul II (Religion & Ethics Newsweekly)
KL: Normally, the rules say that you need to wait five years before launching into the case for sainthood. That is because a lot of times when someone dies, there can be an immediate rush of emotion. They want to make sure they do it in a careful way. But, in the case of John Paul II, as was the case with Mother Teresa, that five year waiting period was waived by the pope. So, their clauses were fast-tracked. Some people feel that wasn’t fair, that they shouldn’t have gotten special treatment. The Vatican says that there was such a strong outpouring of devotion for both of those people that they were listening to the voice of the people.
IT: Does the quick beatification of John Paul II and Mother Teresa signify a change in Church policy or tradition?
KL: Well, John Paul II had a very long papacy, almost 27 years, during which he declared more saints than all of his predecessors combined. After he died, the Vatican released new rules and urged local bishops and others who were moving these cases forward to be a little more careful when putting up causes for sainthood, and take the time to really investigate them thoroughly. As a result, Benedict hasn’t proclaimed saints at quite the same rate that John Paul II did.
IT: Are there any modern-day misconceptions about sainthood in the Catholic Church?
KL: Saints play an interesting role for Catholics – they can be models for a spiritual life, but many Catholics pray to saints on a regular basis. That can be confusing for Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Some people might ask, “Why do they pray to the saint, why don’t they just pray directly to God?” What the Church teaches is that when Catholics pray to a saint, they are asking that saint to intervene before God. Just like you might ask someone to pray for you, that’s what Catholics do, they’re asking the saint to bring their request to God with the idea that the saint is closer to God and therefore, God will listen. That’s something that I think is misunderstood and sometimes people think that it’s the saint that’s doing the miracle. Church teaching says that it’s God who’s doing the miracle, but through the intervention of the saint.
Many people also tend to think that saints were perfect people. But that’s not the case at all. Saints were human beings, complete with struggles and flaws. The Church teaches that they overcame that, and they lived holy lives in spite of their faults. Many people I interviewed for my story talked about how they were inspired to learn that the saints were “real” people just like they are.
Once among the most productive salmon fisheries on the planet, the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest today is marked by the alarming absence of the region’s staple fish. Many salmon populations are already extinct or endangered due to overfishing, habitat loss and dams, making their future in the region unclear. Here, Norton discusses what interested him in telling their story, and the complex reality of our efforts to save them.
Inside Thirteen: What first interested you in the story of the Pacific Northwest salmon?
Jim Norton: One of the great parts of this project was the opportunity to come back around to where I first heard the story – from Jerry Myers, who appears in the film and tells pretty much the same thing he told me shortly after I started guiding in Idaho. I was young, beginning and ending each day in a sleeping bag in the wilderness, well insulated from the burdens of conflicting education or experience…everything seemed perfect to me. And then one afternoon Jerry and I were fishing together, far up a tributary creek of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River. The Salmon is part of the upper vasculature of the Snake and Columbia River systems, an alpine womb which once produced as many Chinook salmon as anywhere on the planet. We lingered a long time at a place called the “salmon pool,” and Jerry started telling me what used to be there. It was actually a little frustrating at the time; it was hard to honor his more complete version of a landscape I knew as a form of ideal.
As guides, so much of our work involved the language of the pristine, the iconography of wildness, the gin clear water of Salmon Rivers and Redfish Lakes. Although the narrative was very much part of my life, much of that richness is just an anecdote for the generation who arrived in the Pacific Northwest after about the 1970s. It’s a story someone else tells us. Our timeline of memory begins just as that of abundant salmon was ending, and with it the biological and cultural nourishment on which so much depended. My experience as a guide, and the connection I am making now as a full-time resident, initially had no lens through which I could see working on rivers, facilitating what has essentially become a leisure pursuit, as a cultural remnant of once more robust and varied interactions with the land and water. So my interest in this story was originally very personal, an attempt to explore the paradox that a lot of the Pacific Northwest lives within: strong identification with the idea of a natural and cultural heritage derived from abundant salmon, but having just missed out on the heritage itself.
IT: What were you most surprised to learn about salmon and/or the process and effects of harvesting them during the making of this episode?
JN: Without question, I was most impressed by the degree to which we took the original myth of protection through production and never looked back. The scale of the infrastructure that has developed around providing alternatives to salmon swimming up and down streams – the billion dollar “mitigation economy” – is simply staggering.
I was also surprised by the degree to which everyone I met on the ground was genuinely engaged in doing the most they could for salmon, appropriate to the context in which they were working. The hatchery programs are trying to produce as many healthy juveniles as they can; the biologists in the hydro power system are trying to pass as many live fish as possible around the dams; the pilots of the juvenile fish transport barges and trucks are checking stress levels in the tanks; the predator chasers were really trying to reduce the number of salmon eaten by sea lions and terns. Telescoping in on each vignette, it looks like a lot of people doing everything possible to solve their piece of the problem. It’s when you open up and show the accumulation of those contexts that things get ugly, and arguably absurd.
IT: Can you explain the significance of the federal salmon policy decision in the Columbia River Basin that will happen this spring? What is at stake?
Lochsa River, Idaho - a tributary of the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia (Jim Norton)
JN: In short, the listing of 13 Columbia River salmon and steelhead species as endangered or threatened under the Endangered Species Act requires the government to develop a plan, or biological opinion (“bi-op”), for their protection and restoration. Both the 2000 and 2004 salmon plans were rejected by the courts, meaning that the current administration’s recently submitted plan is the latest in over a decade of modification, argument, and litigation. Technically, the bi-op covers the management of the hydro power system on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. An imminent decision from the federal judge should determine whether the most recent iteration of the proposed plan is legal. Of course, whether our approach to salmon management is actually sufficient for their protection, let alone their restoration, isn’t determined in a courtroom. When Jerry Myers is kept awake by the sound of splashing salmon in Indian Creek, when David Duncan can crouch by the river and find fire in cold stone, when the Tribes are nourished in the many ways derived from abundance…then and only then will we know we’ve done well.
IT: In the episode, it is said that, “If the fish were in any worse shape, they wouldn’t be savable, if they were in any better shape, people wouldn’t care as much. This is the time.” Do you agree with that? Do things have to get bad enough for people to care enough to make a change?
JN: I agree this is the time for a radical re-evaluation of the goals and approach to salmon recovery. Many people have cared, a lot, about declining salmon populations for over a hundred years. Unfortunately, sometimes a response to declining resources is an even tighter grip on the agents of that decline. Even as the situation becomes more desperate, it becomes harder and harder to make big changes because everything feels more fragile. In this film, we wanted to get beyond the documentation of now familiar insults to nature and examine the role, and legacy, of how we have tried to save.
IT: Do you see the salmon situation as proof that human ingenuity is no match for Mother Nature?
Chinook salmon (Isaac Babcock)
JN: No. That proof has been offered too many times before, in too many different ways. The story of the Columbia is, perhaps, an affirmation of that maxim. The modern salmon situation does express interesting components of the relationship between human ingenuity and nature. Something we seem to have lost is the appreciation that the abundance we’re now working so hard, at such cost, to wrestle out of the Columbia is the default condition of the place. Abundance is not something we’re going to tease from the river by being clever. The problem here is shifting baselines. Diminishing abundance determines each new generation’s opportunities on the Columbia; these present opportunities become our memories of a collective past, and together they mark the boundaries of what we imagine it could be again. The thrilling potential of restoration, then, isn’t just about more fish – it’s about expanding our capacity to imagine, increasing opportunities to live a life in the story of our choosing.
IT: How do the Tribes’ relationships to salmon fit into the picture going forward?
JN: The additional levels of complexity and intensity inherent to the tribes’ relationship to this story are humbling. Since no 50-minute program can cover everything, we wanted to focus on the Euro-centric, techno-industrial mitigation component of this story. Of course we make reference to the issue as it concerns the Tribes, but they are still very much in the process of working it out for themselves. I hope they find ways to share their stories, because those stories are so terribly underrepresented in the dialect of salmon science and conservation. There are many expressions of what we know about salmon other than what can be plotted, shaded, extrapolated and correlated, including things we can measure but also things we can’t. This information has been part of indigenous communities for millennia. Comprised of replicated observations over many generations of time, these knowledge systems are not only inherently scientific; they represent our only connection to the deep time on which most ecological systems operate.
Equally meaningful, they also encompass the culture of respect that evolved among people as a function of profoundly intimate experience with the specific environment around them, not only as a form of ritual but as an application of effective governance. Information is shared as a narrative covering many aspects of life in the watershed, not exclusively packaged as data sets. We should be maintaining and promoting this paradigm, where the results of formal research are incorporated into a broader sense of place that includes indigenous understanding and oral histories.
There are so many complicating factors for the Tribes within the context of their separate and collective histories, the struggles they have had getting their treaty rights affirmed legislatively and judicially, how that struggle has influenced their considerations about what to fight for and how, what kind of relationship they will have with commercial fishing and hatcheries. As it concerns the nature and extent of salmon recovery, what the Tribes decide is good enough will have a big effect on what happens with salmon in the Columbia.
IT: What message do you hope audiences will take from this episode?
JN: First, we hope audiences will simply celebrate salmon themselves – their truly extraordinary life history and why they stubbornly remain icons of wildness, resilience, and abundance. Certainly, we hope this episode will contribute to an appreciation of their role in stitching together oceans and continents, estuaries and alpine meadows, coastal rainforests and high deserts. By extension, people should come away with an understanding of why their decline is so consequential on so many levels.
Also, we hope audiences will explore the original assumptions that informed our approach to managing salmon – and how committed we remain to trying to make that story work despite 150 years of evidence that those assumptions might be leading us astray. At incalculable cost, we constructed a reality out of our illusions and have forgotten which is which. Maybe it’s time for a new story.
On Friday, April 29, Live from the Artists Den will feature UK pop legends, Squeeze, performing from Bryant Park in New York City.
The band will perform hits spanning their career, including “Is That Love,” “Pulling Mussels (From The Shell)” and “Tempted,” in celebration of their latest album, Spot the Difference, which features new recordings of Squeeze classics.
Jeff Malmberg, director of Marwencol, took on much more than just a film project when he decided to shoot a documentary about Mark Hogancamp. Intrigued by a magazine article about Mark and his imaginary backyard universe, Jeff had to earn the trust of a man who had been misunderstood and brutalized by the outside world in his past.
Here, Malmberg discusses the process of making the film, which premieres Tuesday, April 26 at 10:00 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
I work primarily as a film and TV editor, but back in 2006 I decided that I’d like to try my hand at directing. Around the same time, I happened to see an article on Mark and Marwencol in Esopus Magazine. I was immediately drawn to Mark’s photos and especially his captions, which hinted at something going on beneath the surface.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Like any independent film, the biggest challenge is always budget. I worked on Marwencol on and off for about four years while I worked full-time as an editor. Plus, Mark lives on the other side of the country, so it’s not like I could just drive over and see him on weekends. But I think the distance probably helped as much as it hurt, since it gave both Mark and me time to process what was happening.
How did you gain Mark’s trust?
I think it happened gradually during the four years I filmed him. I just kept coming out and I think he realized that I really wanted to understand him and what he was going through. I remember on the first day, I asked to film him dragging the Jeep. I walked with him the two miles to the store and back, and I think that meant a lot to him.
What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
More scenes of Mark’s fantasy world — there’s so much beauty and imagination that we just didn’t have time to include.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The scene late in the film when Mark is tucking the dolls into bed always gets me, both for its content and the fact that Mark shared it with me.
What has the audience response been so far?
It’s been incredible. People seem to really love and understand Mark.
Has Mark seen the film? What did he think?
I showed the film to Mark and Bert before we premiered at SXSW. They laughed a lot and Mark got choked up. He told his mom that I told his story exactly as he would have, if he’d known how.
The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
The chance to get to tell a story like Mark’s.
Why did you choose to present Marwencol on public television?
I remember when I was a kid, public television felt like it was full of talking heads and nature documentaries. I think that stereotype still exists, but when you actually watch it, you’re like, “wait … this is public television?” It’s not your parents’ PBS. Series like Independent Lens have some of the best, most entertaining programming I see on TV. And we wanted to be a part of that.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Paying off my credit card.
What are your three favorite films?
They change all the time, but three that come to mind at the moment are Salesman, Marjoe, and To Be and to Have (Etre et Avoir).
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t worry about getting an expensive camera or hiring a big crew. Amazing films are being made by one person with a pocket camera and a computer. It’s the story and your connection to it that really matter.
There’s not craft services on a documentary film set! What is your most crucial sustenance when making an indie film?
Didn’t get an invite to the Royal Wedding? Get a front row seat to all the festivities without the trip across the pond.
THIRTEEN will be airing live coverage of the day’s events, beginning on Friday, April 29 at 3 a.m. (yes, a.m.).
Check out our Royal Wedding schedule for our live coverage and special one-hour documentary on the upcoming nuptials:
WILLIAM AND KATE: THE ROYAL WEDDING
Premieres Saturday, April 23 at 8:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN
This new one-hour documentary traces the history of the royal couple’s romance and profiles the participants, history and key aspects of a Royal Wedding – a highly anticipated and celebrated event in Britain’s royal history. Encores Thursday, April 28 at 8 p.m. and late night Friday, April 29 at 3:30 a.m. on THIRTEEN.
THE ROYAL WEDDING
LIVE FEED begins Friday, April 29 at 3 a.m. on THIRTEEN
BBC1’s Huw Edwards and his team present full coverage of the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton.
Rundown of events:
From 3 a.m. – Guests will start arriving at the Abbey
5-5:30 a.m. – VIPs and foreign heads of state will begin arriving at the Abbey
5:30 a.m. – Senior Royals will depart for the Abbey followed by William and then Kate
6-7:10 a.m. – Ceremony
7:10-8 a.m. – Carriage procession back to the Palace
See Robert Plant and the Band of Joy perform live on tour:
April 8 – Louisville, KY
April 9 – Chicago, IL
April 11 – Milwaukee, WI
April 12 – Minneapolis, MN
April 14 – Hollywood, FL
April 14-16 – Wanee Music Festival (Live Oak, FL)
April 17 – Vancouver, BC
April 19 – Portland, OR
April 20 – Seattle, WA
April 22 – Berkeley, CA
April 23 – Los Angeles, CA
April 25 – Santa Barbara,CA
April 27 – Denver, CO
April 29 – New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
May 1 – Merlefest (Wilkesboro, NC)
First, could you talk a little bit about this project?
I conceived of this as a trilogy of documentary series that would mimic the patterns of the triangle trade. There would be a series on Africa which was called Wonders of the African World in 1999. And then there would be a series on black America called America Behind the Color Line in 2004. And then the third part of the triangle trade was, of course, South America and the Caribbean. The triangle trade was Africa, South America, and the continental United States and Europe. That’s how I conceived of it. I’ve been thinking about it since before 1999. But the first two were easier to get funding for. Everyone knows about black people from Africa, everyone knows about the black American community. But surprisingly, and this is why the series is so important, not many people realize how “black” South America is. So of all the things I’ve done it was the most difficult to get funded and it is one of the most rewarding because it is so counter-intuitive, it’s so full of surprises. And I’m very excited about it.
And why do you think there is a lack of knowledge about the black populations in Latin America?
Well, incredibly, there were 11.2 million Africans that we can count who survived the Middle Passage and landed in the New World, and of that 11.2 million, only 450,000 came to the United States. That’s amazing. All the rest went south of Miami as it were. Brazil got almost 5 million Africans. In part, this reflects our ignorance as Americans who don’t know that much about the rest of the world. But also, it is in part the responsibility of the countries in South America themselves — each of which underwent a period of whitening. In the hundred year period between 1872 and 1975, Brazil received 5,435,735 immigrants from Europe and the Middle East and this was a conscious policy after 1850 to “whiten” Brazil which was such a black country. Brazil is the second blackest nation in the world. Brazil has the second largest black population — black being defined by people of African descent in the way that we would define them in this country. It’s second only to Nigeria. But no one knows this. So it’s those two reasons, that the countries themselves went through long periods of being embarrassed about how black they were and secondly, our own ignorance. That’s why this series is so important. It’s meant to educate Americans, and people in Europe and the rest of the world, but it’s also meant to educate people in South America, too. And in each of these countries there is a political campaign against racism, for affirmative action, and for their right to exist where they don’t as census categories. For example, in Mexico and Peru, they are fighting for the right to be identified as black. As in France, many people in these countries thought that if you put that social identity in the census that it reinforces racism. But doing that also prevents people from organizing around race when they are discriminated by race. It’s a paradox. And it’s fascinating to see what is similar and dissimilar in each of these countries.
For Black in Latin America you visited Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Peru. How did you choose to focus on these particular six countries?
Well, we had to pick a country that reflected quite dramatically the history of the slave trade. So the largest countries with the biggest black populations are Brazil and Venezuela. So that was one category. We divided all the countries into categories. We only had four hours. We couldn’t do all the Caribbean and all of South America. We had to come up with criteria. So category one is size. Brazil’s the largest country in South America and it’s Portuguese-speaking, so that was interesting. Second, we wanted to do something representative from the Caribbean.
Haiti just had the earthquake, it was very much in the news. Every night for months I would watch Anderson Cooper talking about the earthquake. But never did Anderson Cooper or anyone else talk about the history of Haiti. They’d talk about voodoo as if it was lunatic superstitions rather than one of the world’s old religions. Most journalists didn’t write anything sophisticated about the history of the revolution. And no one talked about the fact that it was at the western end of an island with another country, the Dominican Republic, and that the two of them had created their identities together and in opposition to each other. So it’s like Jacob and Esau, Yin and Yang. They’re both there on that island, separated by a river, and they’re very different countries. One is Spanish, Catholic and white, as it’s fond of saying. The other is African, black and voodoon. So we’re going to lead off the airing of the series with the Haiti & Dominican Republic program.
Cuba is a slam dunk. Everybody wants to know what’s going on in Cuba. And Fidel Castro, two years after he had his revolution in 1959, he announced that racism had been eliminated in Cuba. And Cuba got almost 800,000 slaves — far more than the United States. So there’s a fascination with Cuba: Our nearest neighbor. Miami’s twin city. How black is Cuba? Is there racism? Did the revolution, which brought health benefits and education to poor people, eliminate racism? That’s the question we ask. You can get the answer because the name of the episode is The Next Cuban Revolution.
And then finally Mexico and Peru. If Havana is the twin city of Miami, Mexico is our twin country. No one thinks of Mexico and Peru as black. But Mexico and Peru together got 700,000 Africans in the slave trade. The coast of Acapulco was a black city in the 1870s. And the Veracruz Coast on the gulf of Mexico and the Costa Chica, south of Acapulco are traditional black lands. Here’s the punchline, Barack Obama the first black president in the New World? No way. Vicente Guerrero in 1829. Mulatto, just like Barack Obama. First President of Mexico.
All these countries have curious things for this hidden history. The Dominican Republic says “We’re black behind the ears.” And in Mexico, “there’s a black grandma in the closet.” They know, they’ve just been intermarrying for a long time. But if we did the DNA of everyone in Mexico a whole lot of people would have a whole lot of black in them.
Prof. Gates and Darren Walker, Ford Foundation Vice President of Education, Creativity and Free Expression
Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
WNET President & CEO, Neal Shapiro, Prof. Gates, and Ford Foundation President Luis Ubiñas
The series reveals how huge a role history can play in forming a nation’s concept of race. Although each of the countries you visited has its own distinct history, did you find any commonalities between the six countries with regard to race?
Yes, each country except for Haiti went through a period of whitening, when they wanted to obliterate or bury or blend in their black roots. Each then, had a period when they celebrated their cultural heritage but as part of a multi-cultural mix and in that multi-cultural mix, somehow the blackness got diluted, blended. So, Mexico, Brazil, they wanted their national culture to be “blackish” — really brown, a beautiful brown blend. And finally, I discovered that in each of these societies the people at the bottom are the darkest skinned with the most African features. In other words, the poverty in each of these countries has been socially constructed as black. The upper class in Brazil is virtually all white, a tiny group of black people in the upper-middle class. And that’s true in Peru, that’s true in the Dominican Republic. Haiti’s obviously an exception because it’s a country of mulatto and black people but there’s been a long tension between mulatto and black people in Haiti. So even Haiti has its racial problems.
In your opinion, if you visited other countries in Latin America you would see those commonalities coming out as well?
Yes. Again, these are representative. Typical. And I think that they typify the larger experience. I would hope we could get funding to do another series.
How do you feel the race experience differs between Latin American nations and the United States?
Whereas we have black and white or perhaps black, white, and mulatto as the three categories of race traditionally in America, Brazil has 136 kinds of blackness. Mexico, 16. Haiti, 98. Color categories are on steroids in Latin America. I find that fascinating. It’s very difficult for Americans, particularly African-Americans to understand or sympathize with. But these are very real categories. In America one drop of black ancestry makes you black. In Brazil, it’s almost as if one drop of white ancestry makes you white. Color and race are defined in strikingly different ways in each of these countries, more akin to each other than in the United States. We’re the only country to have the one-drop rule. The only one. And that’s because of the percentage of rape and sexual harassment of black women by white males during slavery and the white owners wanted to guarantee that the children of these liaisons were maintained as property.
And what’s amazing is that they can keep track. I’m thinking of the scene in Brazil where the group of men listed the different racial classifications that describe their skin color.
It’s like they had a color meter. “Oh this person is Caboclo.” I cracked up. That was a brilliant scene. I set that up, I told the crew just to follow me. And we walked through the market with me asking people what color I was and we had a lot of responses and then we picked the best one. But the best one was those guys when we put the hands in the circle. And then they all said “I’m Negro, I’m Negro” and then I said “No really, what are you?” And they go “I’m Cabocla, He’s Moreno.” It was great.
Could you discuss a few events during the making of the series that you found particularly powerful?
Well, there were many. Discovering that people in Latin America had been worshiping two black saints since the 1600s. That was astonishing. Discovering that the first Barack Obama in the New World was a Mexican, Vicente Guerrero. Learning that the Cuban Army of Independence was over 50 percent black and that two of its leaders were black generals including Antonio Maceo. But I think the most moving person I met was a Catholic Priest named Father Glyn Jemmott who works in the Costa Chica South of Acapulco on the Pacific in the blackest area of Mexico. He’s a Trinidadian. He’s been a parish priest there for 25 years. And he’s a black man. And his goal is to get people into Heaven. And to help them understand that they’re black and that’s a good thing. And he’s a humble man. He does it for the love of God and humanity. I found interacting with him a deeply spiritual experience.
Which of the countries do you most want to go back to visit and why?
I love them all. It’s like a mother and her children. I want to go back to each of them. But I was particularly fascinated by Cuba. Cuba is like going to a whole other planet. It’s so different but it’s so similar to the United States, to Miami. It’s like a doppelgänger. It’s the mirror image. And I have no doubt, that once Cuba becomes democratic, that it will be the favorite tourist destination for Americans. The people are all waiting for democracy and capitalism to come and I hope that that happens very soon. I mean I wish that Fidel Castro would wake up one day and decide he wants to be the George Washington of his country and institute one person one vote and open the country up.
In this week’s Independent Lens Director’s Statement, Waste Land director Lucy Walker discusses what first interested her in making a film centered around garbage, and what it was like working with artist Vik Muniz. Waste Land airs Tuesday, April 19 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.
I have always been interested in garbage: What it says about us. What in there embarrasses us, and what we can’t bear to part with. Where it goes and how much of it there is. How it endures. What it might be like to work with it every day. I read about one woman’s crusade to show her appreciation for all the sanitation workers in New York by hugging each of them, and I applauded the sentiment … and yet … there had to be some other way for me to show my appreciation.
Then when I was a graduate film student at NYU, I started training with the NYU Triathlon Club. As we endured the most grueling 6 AM workouts imaginable, I bonded with fellow triathlete Robin Nagle, a brilliant professor who was teaching about garbage. Listening to Robin talk about her work was so fascinating that I began sitting in on her Ph.D seminar, and loved deepening my thinking about the sociology and implications and revelations and actuality of garbage.
So when Robin took her grad students to visit Fresh Kills, the landfill on Staten Island, I was curious and gate-crashed. These days it is best known as the resting place of the debris from the World Trade Center, but this was back in March 2000. It was a shocking place, with chain-link fences clad with teeming nightmare quantities of plastic bags making the nastiest noise imaginable, and pipes outgassing methane poking up at regular intervals through the exaggerated contours of the grassed-over giant mounds of garbage. It’s a parody of an idyllic hyper-landscaped city park, with garbage hills 225-feet high — taller than the Statue of Liberty. We looked at the rats and seagulls and dogs, and at the palimpsests of layer upon layer of discarded possessions. And we tried to ignore the putrid smell.
I love great locations in movies, and I couldn’t believe I’d never seen a landfill on screen before. It was the most haunting place. And all of the garbage I’d ever generated living in New York City was in there somewhere. This was the graveyard of all my stuff, along with everyone else’s. I immediately knew that I wanted to make a movie in a garbage dump.
Cut to 2006, and I met producer Angus Aynsley and co-producer Peter Martin at BritDoc and again at the London Film Festival, and instantly liked them enormously and wanted to work with them. Talking about possible projects, Angus mentioned that he had met Vik Muniz and been impressed by his highly entertaining slideshow about art history. I had seen and loved Vik’s work, and I was hugely excited about the possibility of working with him. So I read some of Vik’s writing and set off with Angus and Peter to meet Vik in Newcastle, England when he had an opening at the Baltic in January 2007.
When we met up again in Vik’s studio in New York two months later the conversation turned to garbage, and I suddenly thought about my trip to Fresh Kills seven years previous. That was the lightbulb moment. Vik had previously done a beautiful series using junk, and he had also done projects with street sweepings and dust. His creative use of materials is his signature — whether chocolate sauce, sugar, or condensation trails from planes — so this project would very much be an extension of his earlier work. After we’d started talking about it, no other ideas were interesting anymore. I knew that a collaboration between Vik and the catadores would be potentially very dramatic. Vik had previously done some brilliant social projects with street kids in São Paulo and had a wonderful ongoing project in Rio that employed kids from the favelas, and I was totally inspired by him.
A month later, Angus and I got exciting news that Fabio had found one landfill where the drug traffic was under control, and the catadores were being organized into a co-operative by a charismatic young leader who might be open to collaborating with Vik. We were all very nervous — there were so many things to be afraid of, from dengue fever to kidnapping — but we all wanted to go. We arrived in Rio de Janeiro in August 2007 — Vik, Angus, Peter, and me. Seeing the extremes of poverty and wealth so ostentatiously displayed through the car window … the contrasts of mountains and oceans, black and white, garbage and art, art stars and catadores … the contrasts couldn’t be more starkly drawn than in Rio de Janeiro, and I realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that we were tackling this particular topic in Rio. It was perfect.
For me this film, as with all of my work, is about getting to know people who you do not normally meet in your life. And, if I’m doing my job, I aim to create an opportunity for the audience to feel they are getting under the skin, to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. But you need people you can care about. And so when Valter first cycled into my line of sight, I knew for sure that we had a movie. That day I had gone on my first reconnaissance mission to the landfill and was dressed head-to-toe in protective layers fit for a moon landing. His bike was decorated so creatively with odd trinkets from the trash and he honked his eagle horn with such sweet wit that I was totally smitten.
I am Vik’s biggest fan. And this idea of “the human factor,” about scales in portraiture, and distances in getting to know people, is what the movie is about for me. I’m not sure anyone will notice this unless I tell them, but there are three references to ants in the movie: Vik says that when he is flying over Gramacho, the people look like “just little ants, doing what they do every day”; then Isis talks about the ant that she saw crawling over her dead son’s face; finally we see Vik playing with an ant with his paintbrush in the studio. That play of being so far away that people are just ants, with no “human factor” is the opposite experience of being so deeply connected to your son that you will never forget “not the tiniest detail, not a single single detail,” not even an ant on his face in a single moment.
And Vik, as an artist, plays between these levels of proximity and distance, between showing the viewer the material and showing them the idea, revealing the relationship between the paint strokes and the scene depicted by the paint. The portrait is Isis, it is a Picasso, it is a bunch of garbage, and it is a work by Vik Muniz — all at once. You can view things close in or further away. Likewise you can fear people from afar or you can go interact with them. I love the Eames’s Powers of Ten and I wanted to create a social analog. To start with we see the place from GoogleEarth, then from a helicopter, then from a car, then from a safe distance, then from a first meeting, then from a growing friendship, then from it having change you fundamentally and permanently.
Just as Vik wants the portraits to serve as a mirror in which the catadores may see themselves, so I hope the movie serves as a means for us to see our journey to becoming involved with people so far from ourselves. To zoom all the way in to caring about someone who was previously as far away as it’s possible to be.
Questions poke through the fabric of the movie as things get messy. In Waste Land, Vik and his wife start to argue on camera about whether the project is hurting the catadores by taking them out of their environment and then, when it’s over, expecting them to return. Likewise, should documentary filmmakers interfere with their subjects’ lives? But how could they not? I don’t believe in objectivity. I observe the observer’s paradox every moment I’m filming. Your presence is changing everything; there’s no mistaking it. And you have a responsibility.
My heartfelt thanks to the catadores. I can’t help seeing Waste Land as the third in a triptych with my earlier films Devil’s Playground and Blindsight, and not least in the awe and gratitude I feel for the group of people who were courageous enough to share their stories with us — and to live lives so rich in inspiration for us all. We dedicate the movie to Valter, and remember him saying that “99 is not 100.” A single can, or a single catador, can make the difference.
In honor of Earth Week, THIRTEEN is featuring a lineup of environmentally friendly shows that inform by looking to our green pioneers of the past, and future initiatives set to make our planet more a efficient place.
Olmsted and America’s Urban Parks: A new documentary tracing the career of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, whose firm designed and built nearly 100 public parks, including Central Park. Airs Wednesday, April 20 at 10 p.m.
Nature: Survivors of the Firestorm: After bushfires tore through the Australian state of Victoria in February 2009, burned and traumatized survivors showed a remarkable ability to bounce back, and the environment an extraordinary capacity for healing. Airs Sunday, April 17 at 8 p.m.
Independent Lens – Wasteland: Brazilian artist Vik Muniz creates portraits of people using found materials from the places where they live and work. The film picks up as Muniz embarks on his next project, inspired by the trash pickers at the largest landfill on earth. Airs Tuesday, April 19 at 10 p.m.
NOVA – Power Surge: NOVA travels the globe to reveal the surprising technologies that just might turn back the clock on climate change. The show will focus on the latest innovations, ranging from artificial trees to green reboots of familiar technologies like coal and nuclear energy. Airs Wednesday, April 20 at 9 p.m.
See Grace Potter and the Nocturnals perform live on tour:
March 12 – Washington DC
March 25 – Boston, MA
March 26 – Providence, RI
April 9 – Charlotte, NC
April 15 – Vail, CO
June 2 – Ozark, AK
June 3 – Chicago, IL
June 5 – Hunter, NY (Mountain Jam)
June 10 – Manchester, TN (Bonnaroo)
June 11 – Santa Rosa, CA (Harmony Festival)