Film Review: Waste Land by Lucy Walker
Waste Land, by Lucy Walker
Playing November and December at Select Theaters
(Reprinted from For Your Art)
The catadores, or trash pickers, of the Jardim Gramacho dump outside of Rio de Janeiro can deduce a person’s class by their garbage. Small bits, in re-used grocery bags, indicate someone hovering near poverty line. Playboy magazines, shoes that could have sustained much more wear, old technology — all these lead the catadores to conclude the dumper was middle or upper-class. The pickers can be analytic, even philosophical, in their jobs. They know which piles have valuable potential; some also reflect on the meaning of their labor.
Waste Land, a new documentary film by Lucy Walker, follows artist Vik Muniz as he makes photographic portraits of Jardim Gramacho’s catadores. Muniz’s builds images out of all sorts of materials -- dust, ash, to chocolate -- and then subsequently photographs the material; it is, in some respects, a reuse and reinvention, an ideal artistic metaphor for the life of the catadores. The optimism of Muniz’s work suits his subjects here as well: the catadores, at their most optimistic, can transform their existence in trash into one of dignity.
Waste Land, which is playing in November and December in theaters across the United States, is a series of vignettes about the pickers who become the subjects of Muniz’s photographs. We meet Tiaõ, the leader of the Association for the Pickers of Jardim Gramacho (ACAMJG), who becomes one of the protagonists of the film. We meet Isis, Irma, Suelem, and Magna. We meet an elderly gentleman, Valter, who is compelling not only for his pithy philosophy, but for his comfort with his status as a picker and his fundamental belief in the value of his life. Then there is Zumbi, who dreams of building a library of discarded books.
As each player tells his or her story, Muniz becomes absorbed. He is inspired by their cooperation, horrified by the conditions, and is taken up by their tragedies. He is also captured by a poetic idea: using the garbage collected by the pickers, and arranged by them, to create their own portraits, one of which will be subsequently sold at auction in support of ACMAJG.
Yet what starts as a feel good film (partially motivated by big ticket concerns over over-population, the need for sustainability, and the horrors of poverty, not to
mention, self-satisfied with its bullish belief of redemption through
art) becomes a complicated moral knot. Muniz begins to recognize the potential for extreme harm in his actions, the moral ambiguity of his pursuits, and the vulnerability of his subjects. In a sharp moment, Muniz is interrogated, “What are you going to do, bring them to London?” In other words, what can Muniz do for the catadores now that he has shown them art and offered them a more comfortable job for a brief period of time? Can they return, with any sort of contentment, to the landfill?
The artist, from a working class family, came into some money after a bizarre turn of events in which he got shot in the leg. Afterward, Muniz left Brazil for the United States and worked a variety of odd jobs before achieving a successful career in the arts. Once the beneficiary of strange fortune, Muniz would now appear to be the bearer of good fortune at the landfill, but it’s not a role he can fully live up to. Unforeseen were the complications and troubles of his involvement with the catadores. Muniz has the power to improve the catadores’ life for a short time, but ultimately is powerless to truly transform their lives.
Hiring the catadores to be part of his photography practice—taking them temporarily away from the landfill—is akin to giving a person candy for the first time. On one hand, the experience throws into sharp relief the previous candy-less existence, which can lead to despair. On the other hand, the taste of this sweeter reality can lead to a transformation, the creation of a desire to make such a reality permanent. The worst outcome, however—and this hovers in the background in this film—is that candy isn’t good for the person. The introduction of this troubling element in their lives, in fact, may harm a person who had been quite content.
Waste Land faces these dilemmas as Muniz does, and the outcome is worth observing. This is a rich documentary, exquisitely structured and emotionally penetrating. The character to watch, however, is Muniz. The moral ambiguities he faces as he realizes his ambitious work face anyone trying to effect a change inside of a large problem. The outcome is not always uplifting. This film has the admirable courage to show this tough side of giving back.