Category Archives: Documentaries

Art, Inequality, and “Dirty Work” in “Wasteland”

“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

Due to an illness, I decided to show the documentary, “Wasteland,” to my intro sociology class last week. “Wasteland” won many awards during 2010 and 2011. It’s perfect for a sociology class or for anyone looking to understand a different culture, interested in inequality and social justice, or who loves artistic endeavors.  The video is also a great look at recycling and environmental activism.

Vik Muniz, the artist in the video, is an internationally known artist who left Brazil to go to the United States due to receiving a payment from a person who shot him. In this TED Talk from 2003, Muniz humorously chats about his view of art and his own art specifically. After his success as an artist, he wanted to help others. He decides to return to Brazil, specifically to Jardim Gramacho, a landfill outside of Sao Pablo. He lives among the catadores, or the workers who scavenged the materials for recyclables. The documentary explores why the catadores perform the work they do, as opposed to other jobs. For many, tragedies struck their lives giving them few options. It also notes the activism of the workers to create the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ARPJG) prior to the arrival of Muniz.

As one would expect, the catadores’ views on their situations varied.  Some viewed their work with pride, focusing on their important contributions to their community and helping the environment.  They were responsible for recycling waste and saving space in the landfill.  These workers derived meaning and purpose from their work.

On the other hand, some seemed ashamed.  More than once, women pointed out that at least they weren’t working as prostitutes.  This reminded me of the concept of “dirty work” in sociology.  The concept was created by Everett C. Hughes.  Dirty work is socially constructed, meaning that society decides what work is dirty.  This concept is about more than just physical dirt.  It can also refer to work that a society perceives to be morally suspect.  Finally, people that even work to help groups of people seen as stigmatized may be considered to be doing dirty work.  Often, to feel respectable, workers completing dirty work will try to avoid their stigmatizing label and legitimize their work to themselves and others.  (If you want to read more about this, you can refer this PDF of an analysis of Ashforth and Kreiner’s look at dirty work by Stacy J. Chidaushe.)

While I follow the attempts of some sex workers in the US to define their own lives and refuse to be rescued by other people, I do not know what the experiences of sex workers in the areas of Brazil were like or how they perceived themselves. However, it is interesting to me that these workers that likely had common social class interests. By trying to avoid the stigmatizing label and to appear respectable, the catadores participated in the stigmatization of another group.

For the most part, I feel that the documentary did a good job of showing the daily live of the catadores, in addition to the horrors that they sometimes faced. One woman discussed finding the body of a baby in the refuse. Often, people would dump murder victims in Jardim Garamacho.  Yet, there were beautiful moments of love, care, humor, and creativity.  One of the catadores was a leader in ARPJG, and he discussed the excitement of finding and reading books.

In the end, Muniz gets the catadores to pose for portraits, some of which were their own ideas.  Then, he gets them to help him make huge murals of the portraits using recyclable goods from the landfill.  The results were absolutely amazing, and the process seemed to be an empowering one.  They take one of portraits to an auction and make $50,000 for the catadores.  Of course, this is heartwarming, but I really respect the fact that they address the potential for harm for the catadores by participating in the video.  Eventually, Muniz would leave and how would the people’s lives be changed for the better or the worse by the interactions? Often documentaries or journalism provide moments for an audience to enjoy, and then leave the people without any further assistance or even without a follow up.

I found an article from PBS that did address what happened after the video.  In 2012, the landfill was closed.  The city planned to pay some of the pickers about $7,500 a piece due to the efforts of the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho.  For the 2014 World Cup, the pickers received contracts to work on recycling.  However, to really know what happened to the catadores, a follow up would be needed to see if their conditions are better under these new contracts and payments. “Wasteland” is a great documentary, and although the landfill is no longer there, the concepts relating to dirty work, stigmatization, inequality, and art make it worth watching.

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Stratification in Ahmed’s “Throne of the Crescent Moon”

[Beware: Spoiler’s Ahead!]

Saladin Ahmed’s novel, “Throne of the Crescent Moon,” is the first book in a series and was a nominee for both the Nebula and the Hugo awards.  I found this to be a quick, compelling read, and I appreciated the inclusion of older protagonists.  Many people have noted the significance of this novel pulling more from Middle Eastern culture and stories instead of being Eurocentric like a great deal of fantasy stories.  However, I found myself the most fascinated by the portrayal of stratification in the novel.  According to Conley, stratification is “systematic inequalities between groups of people that arise as intended or unintended consequences of social processes and relationships.”  This means that people are ordered into hierarchies depending on the categories to which they belong.  When considering a social class system like the United States has, birth certainly matters in the sorting process, but so does individual achievement.  This is an open system, or one that allows for at least some social mobility.  On the other hand, some societies are more rigid with closed systems, where their position in the hierarchy at birth impacts their entire life.  If their parents worked in a particular occupation, then the children will, too.

The book explores stratification in several ways.  For example, Dawoud Son-of-Wajeed and his spouse are from another region of the world. The tensions between the Red River Soo and the Blue River Soo are sociologically intriguing.  He thinks, “Being a rich Blue River girl prepared her for having men carry her on their backs” (194).  Due to his beliefs, he walks on his hour and a half journey to the palace rather than treat other people like animals.

This walk functions as an exploration of stratification in their society.  On his walk, Dawoud notes the differences in the availability of sellers of delicacies.  While all neighborhoods had chicken sellers, Poulterer’s Row includes delicacies like “purple partridge, sun-dove, heron-stuffed swan” and it was the only place in the city  where you could get pickled ostrich eggs (194). (If you are interested in shocking food from around the world, you can watch this video on “Extreme Eats” from National Geographic.  It does contain brief, non-sexualized nudity and causes discomfort for many viewers. I show the first twenty minutes.) Finally, Dawoud gets to the opulent palace, and reflects on the new Khalif, who had never seen any battle due to his privilege. When Dawoud finally receives an audience from the Khalif,  he speaks directly to the Khalif, which is considered highly deviant.

Dawoud makes a fascinating point in this scene.  The Khalif holds court from “a strange gold lattice box, the size of a small carriage” and his court is not allowed to see his body (199). Dawoud reflects “[t]his is what Adoulla—and that mad Falcon Prince he admires so much—do not see: that everyone pays a price for how the world works, even the so called powerful.  The power is a trap as well.”  The reason I think this point is one worth reflecting on is that there can be negative consequences of both having power and lacking it in an unjust society.  For a couple of examples, a patriarchal structure can harm men, in addition to women.  Certainly, women face much more stigmatization and discrimination due to their subordinate position in society, but men can also be restrained from achieving their best selves by assumptions they have to be tough, etc.  The structure of society ensnares everyone, although not in precisely the same way depending on your place in the hierarchy.

Perhaps the most important meditation on stratification in the book is that of Pharaad Az Hammaz, the Falcon Prince.  The Falcon Prince is a controversial figure; he’s viewed quite differently by the various point of view characters.  Some view him as a folk hero, punishing the powerful and wealthy for their maltreatment of the less privileged. In his introductory scene, he stops the execution of a child by killing the executioner. He possessed “a small army of beggars and thieves,” and he was supported by some of the ministers in the government through secret payments. Eventually, he raids the palace to murder the Khalif and his son.  It turns out that the Khalif’s son actually views the Falcon Prince as a hero.  Returning to the previous theme, the Falcon Prince points out that the young Prince has been a prisoner of his father for years.  In the end, the Falcon Prince becomes the ruler, which may avert civil war.  But will he be able to rule any more justly than the others?  Or will he just fit into an already corrupt system and fail to make a difference?  I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the next book and seeing if stratification is addressed further.

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Immigration, Culture, and Disability in “Drown”

Immigration is one of my favorite topics in the social diversity class I teach.  Last fall, I listened to an interview with Junot Diaz on  “The New York Times” Book Review.  I found myself intrigued by both Diaz himself and his character Yunior.  I decided to pick up his first set of short stories called “Drown,” which primarily focus on Yunior.  Similar to Diaz’s experience, Yunior is an immigrant to the US from the Dominican Republic.   Although I’m generally more enthusiastic about reading novels, I sat down to read the first short story last Sunday.  Two or three hours later, I had read the entire book.  The book was fantastic, and I highly recommend it.  It explored tense family dynamics, immigration, working class struggles, relationships, sexual molestation, disability, and bullying, just to name a few.  This book would be wonderful to discuss in a sociology class, particularly in a class on social diversity.  Some of the topics might make students uncomfortable.

Diaz manages to convey different lifestyles and aspect of culture in the Dominican Republic and the United States by showing Yunior and his brother, Rafa’s, lives at home and as they visit relatives.  One of the aspects that I found the most gripping was the fact that Yunior’s family struggles in both places.  In the Dominican Republic, his mother works in a chocolate factory, and at times, she has to send her boys away to other relatives.  It is challenging for her because her husband left to live in the US years before and strings her along.  The stories trace the difficulties of their relationship.  Furthermore, the tales are haunting as you see Yunior at different ages, and it appears that he repeats some of his father’s abusive patterns on at least one of his girlfriends.

One of the most heart-breaking stories in the books is about a secondary character,  “Ysrael,” whose name is also the title of the first short story.  At this point, Yunior is still living in the Dominican Republic and is nine years old.  The boys in the neighborhood abuse Ysrael, because he supposedly had most of his face eaten off by a pig in his childhood.  The boy wore a mask to hide his face.  The other boys chase him, and even Yunior had hit him with a stone.  Rafa decides that they should go find Ysrael and pull his mask off.   The boys embark on an adventure on the bus.  (Distressingly, Yunior is molested on a bus by a man.) They spend time talking to Ysrael before Rafa hits him so that they boys can observe him without the mask.  Both boys are horrified by what they see. In a later story, abuse is implied when Ysrael’s mother tells him to “[go]…before your father comes out” (160).  These stories demonstrate how a person with a disability can face many types of abuse from various people.  I wondered when I read a later story about Ysrael if he had belonged to a more wealthy social class if the doctors would have been able to help him or not.  In the stories, North American doctors are seen with a sense of awe.   In addition to disability and bullying, Diaz looks closely at family ties.

Diaz weaves a complex tale of family tension.  Yunior’s father leaves the family after he gets caught having an affair.  He takes family money to get started and immigrates to the US.  The rest of the family believes that he will send for them. He eventually marries another woman to become a US citizen and has a child with her.  After many years, he brings the entire family up to New York, where he is living.  During the period of separation, he essentially abandons the family.  It reminded me of a powerful documentary that I watched about immigrants from Laos, although the reasons for immigrating were different.

Last semester, a student recommeneded that I watch a documentary on Laos called “The Betrayal-Nerakhoon.”  When I read Diaz’s discussion of Yunior’s family, it reminded me, in part, of this.  In the documentary, due to the impact of the Vietnam war on Laos, the father of the family is detained by the communists.  He had worked for the US during the war.  The other members of the family believed that it was likely that he was dead.  Part, but not all of, the remaining family escape to a refugee camp and eventually immigrate to the US.  When they arrive here, it isn’t the panacea they believed in.  In fact, they wind up living in an impoverished area in New York where gangs and violence are frequent.  Near the end of the documentary, they discover that the father had immigrated to the US as well, and had a new wife in Florida.  The break down of the family is tragic, and the video does a great job of showing culture and culture shock. To conclude, I highly recommend both “Drown” and “The Betrayal – Nerakhoon.”  They both explore culture, culture shock, immigration, and poverty in the US.

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