RIO DE JANEIRO Feb 1 (Reuters) - A Brazilian garbage worker may be sharing the Oscar stage with the likes of Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp next month after his starring role in a documentary on the transformative power of art.
In Oscar-nominated "Waste Land," Sebastiao Carlos dos Santos and a group of other workers at a huge, ugly Rio de Janeiro landfill become muses for artist Vik Muniz, who shines a light on an activity society would rather ignore.
Using blown-up photographs of themselves and the very garbage they pick through all day looking for recyclables, Dos Santos and his fellow workers help Muniz create stunning pieces that are snapped up for thousands of dollars by international collectors.
Dos Santos, better known by his nickname "Tiao," finally travels with Muniz to a top auction house in London and breaks down in tears when a photograph, modeled on his pose in a discarded bathtub, fetches 28,000 pounds ($45,000).
"This doesn't feel real to me when people say you're going to Hollywood," Tiao, 32, told Reuters. "I sometimes joke with Vik about when the clock will strike midnight, I'll lose my shoes and the world will go back to where it was. But I don't think it will now, the world will never be the same."
Tiao, who began helping his family pick through garbage at the Jardim Gramacho dump on Rio's rough outskirts when he was just 11, was able to buy a house with the proceeds of the art auction.
"There are a lot of people who still have prejudice about the garbage-picking job," said Tiao, who in the movie's final scene is shown correcting a famous talk show host who calls him a garbage worker. "We are recyclers," he tells him.
Despite a lack of formal schooling, his eloquence and passion about improving conditions and recognition for garbage workers in Brazil's deeply unequal society helped him rise to become president of the local garbage pickers' association.
"People see garbage as something insignificant and invisible, and that's the way garbage pickers were seen too," he said. "This film shows we are fighters, who provide for their families and work honestly."
"Waste Land," directed by Briton Lucy Walker, has been dubbed the "Slumdog Millionaire" of documentaries but it faces some stiff competition in the Best Documentary category.
Its four rivals include another movie centered on street art -- "Exit Through The Gift Shop," by British anti-establishment artist Banksy.
Tiao faces another formidable barrier to his Hollywood dream -- U.S. immigration bureaucracy.
Muniz, a New York-based Brazilian who himself came from a poor background, told Reuters that Tiao's application for a visitor's visa to the United States had been turned down, but he was still hopeful it would be approved in time for the glittering awards ceremony later this month.
"We are considering going with Tiao," Muniz told Reuters. "He is a person who is fundamental for the film, he really should be the one to receive the Oscar."
($ = 1.61 pounds)
(Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Todd Benson and Jackie Frank)