Waste Land [Full Frame 2010]

During the introduction to her documentary Waste Land, Lucy Walker modestly remarked, “this is a film about garbage.”  And, to some extent, it is about waste, garbage, dumps, refuse, and the people who patiently pick through the Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump, located on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, in order to dig out the recyclable materials that have been tossed aside.  The dump and the workers who toil there become the subject of a massive and ambitious art project undertaken by Vik Muniz, an affable New York-based artist who grew up in a  working-class neighborhood in the city.

The workers who comb through massive mountains of garbage, many of which appear to be 30-40 feet high, are known as catadores, and although the work forces them to dig through smelly garbage, often for low wages, they are also able to recognize the value of what they do.  One older gentleman, Victor, reflects that every plastic bottle they find is one less that will clog up a landfill.  Many of the young women reason that the work is better than prostitution, and some of the young men have ambitions to organize a union or worker’s organization that will provide various forms of assistance.  One of the pickers, Tiao, enthusiastically discusses Nietzsche and Machiavelli with a colleague.

After learning about the dump and the workers, Vik Muniz embarks on a fascinating project: he wants to work with the catadores on creating a series of portraits that will depict not only the workers themselves but that will also incorporate the recyclable materials they pull out of the dump.  Initially, Vik takes photographs of several of the workers, many of them posing in imitation of famous works of art.  Some pose dramatically, relishing the attention given by Muniz and his crew.  Others gaze shyly toward the camera.  From there, Muniz rents out an art studio in Rio where he works with the catadores to arrange bottles, glass, and paper in the shape of the photographs he had taken previously.  This manufactured portrait is then photographed and presented as the object of art.  As the pictures begin to attract attention within the art world, the pickers relish the attention drawn to themselves and the work they do, with one of them remarking, “I never thought I would become a work of art.”

It would be easy for a film with this subject to feel exploitative, but Walker and Muniz demonstrate a remarkable self-consciousness about their engagement with the catadores.  Muniz seeks out the advice of the workers, while also ensuring that all proceeds from sales of this art go back into the community.  The sale of Tiao’s portrait at a London auction nets thousands of dollars to support the community center.  Others, though not all of them, see their lives improve in material–and sometimes immaterial–ways, thanks to their ability to se themselves differently after being transformed into art.

On an emotional level, the film is incredibly powerful.  It won the Audience Award at this year’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.  But, like Peter Debruge of Variety, I was engaged, in large part, because of its meditation on art and the role of the artist in society (and like him, I was also reminded of Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and Me, a documentary that compares documentary filmmaking to the act of scavenging). As Arthur Ryel-Lindsey notes, both Muniz and Walker are attentive to questions about “the responsibility of the artist to his subjects.”  At the same time, the film offers a subtle environmental message about the value of recycling.  The sheer amount of garbage is almost breathtaking.  Finally, the film seems to offer art–the high art of galleries and museums in particular–as a means of redeeming waste and transforming it into something meaningful.

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