REVIEW: DVD Release: Waste Land

Film: Waste Land
Release date: 28th February 2011
Certificate: PG
Running time: 99 mins
Director: Lucy Walker, Karen Harley & Joao Jardim
Starring: Vik Muniz
Genre: Documentary
Studio: E1
Format: DVD
Country: Brazil/UK

Lucy Walker is an established director, with documentaries including Countdown To Zero already under her belt. Waste Land is her latest project and has made waves around the world. It was nominated for an Oscar this year and has won several other awards, including the 2010 Sundance Audience Award for a World Cinema Documentary.

Brazilian-born Vik Muniz is a highly successful artist in his adopted home of New York. Having reached a period in his life where he has all the material goods he has ever wanted, he decides to return to his native country and give something back to society. His initial idea is to use garbage in his art, so he seeks out the largest garbage dump in the world; the Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. He is not at all sure what sort of people he will find working there – he is prepared for drug addicts and questionable people living on the edges of society. However, when he meets the pickers, or catadores, he is surprised to find a well-organised syndicate of 2,500 workers who make an honest living and carry themselves with dignity, even whilst picking through the rubbish to find recyclable materials. He meets amateur philosophers, mothers earning money in order to provide for their children, and leaders who ensure fair payments and keep the peace in this vast group. They are more than happy for Muniz to create artworks, the profits of which will go to the Association.

Instead of simply remaining as his subjects, as Muniz originally intended, the catadores become fully involved with the art project. Six are chosen to have their portraits turned into art, each one representing a famous work. They include Tiao, the leader of the Association and fan of Machiavelli, Zumbi, the ‘librarian’, who set up a community library from the discarded books he collects, and Irma, the resident cook who conjures up stews, salads and pasta dishes for the workers. From photos that Muniz takes, the group gets to work transforming these into giant images made from items collected from the Jardim Gramacho. The experience changes everything for the catadores involved, but it leaves Muniz with some difficult moral decisions: is it beneficial for these people to have a glimpse of another world if they have to go back to picking through a rubbish dump at the end of it?

The film unfolds as organically as the experience does for Muniz and the catadores. Walker is a sensitive director who slowly reveals her film subjects layer by layer. We are introduced to the six catadores in turn early on, and then we slowly learn more about each one. In this sense, we share Muniz’s perspective. As he builds relationships with the catadores, they open up to him and share their stories. Walker employs the same tactics with Muniz himself – we know that he came from a poor background in Brazil, but we do not see evidence of this until the end of the film. The way Walker has done this echoes the connection Muniz feels with the catadores, but for a chance event, he could have ended up as one of them.

Walker selects footage that feels natural to what Muniz and his team experience – the first sight we get of the Jardim Gramacho is a wide, sweeping view of the rubbish tips, with people moving about like ants. Only do we get close-ups of individual catadores, which starts to give some sense of humanity to the area, a feeling which Muniz expresses. Walker inserts overhead views of the dumps throughout to remind the viewer of how it is seen from outside – it becomes very easy to forget that this is a deliberately ignored corner of Rio once we begin engaging with the people who work and live there.

As Muniz finds, it is the human element which makes this a story worth telling. It is not really about garbage, or even art, but about the people. There are moments of quiet heartbreak, as individuals are able to find a voice for stories which have so long been repressed due to the daily grind of their work. However, the overriding feeling is one of optimism and positivity. Each picker we meet is dignified, eloquent and tenacious. They demonstrate a remarkable strength of mind which enables them to get through each day with a smile and a few words of wisdom. They welcome Muniz with great warmth and throw themselves into the project, spending days working on the portraits. When they finally get to see the finished works at auction and in a gallery, they make no attempts to hide their joy, and these expressions of raw and unbridled emotion have a real impact on the viewer – you cannot help but connect with the catadores on some level.

The object of any documentary is surely to give us an insight into the lives of other people and Waste Land does that poetically and assuredly. By following Muniz on this project, Walker has uncovered the potential of the human spirit in the most unlikely of places, literally in the rubbish dump. Executed with the same quiet determination and restraint shown by the catadores, the film never slips into melodrama but simply provides a faithful portrait of these people, and allows them to speak for themselves. The feeling that comes across above all is that the catadores do not need pity or charity; they are proud to earn an honest wage and they support each other. They are grateful for the opportunities and additional income that Muniz has brought to the Association, but it seems that Muniz learnt as much from the project as they did. The end result is a film which engages the soul as much as the mind and which cannot help but charm its viewers.

An uplifting, surprising story of an artist who has catapulted into the spotlight people who are usually ignored. This film will lift your spirits and remind you what it means to be human. KS

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