Waste Land (2011)

Directed by Lucy Walker

Last year saw two “Land” documentaries nominated for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards. One was GasLand, and interesting documentary about natural gas drilling and the effects on nearby water supplies and the people affected. Waste Land is quite different. It follows renowned photographer/artist Vik Muniz, a native of Sao Paolo, Brazil. Muniz came from a poor family and never quit his dream, riding it all the way to a nice studio in Brooklyn. For his next project, Muniz decided he would travel to Rio in Brazil and document Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill.

Once there, he discovers many fascinating people who work there collecting recyclable materials. Slowly the audience and Vik gets to know these people. Why they work there, where they come from, how they are able to sift through trash everyday. We meet Tiao, who is the young president of the organization that protects the landfill workers. He is young and charismatic, making sure that the work of the “pickers”, as they are called, does not go for nothing. We meet Zumbi, the man who saves every book he comes across in the piles of rubbish, so that one day he can open a library for the pickers. We meet Suelem, 18 year old mother of two, Isis, and Irma, the cook for the lot. We meet Valter and Magna. Each of these people has a fascinating story as to why they are there and what they do.

The film speaks extremely strongly of the human spirit. These people are extremely proud of their work. Proud that they did not stoop to prostituting themselves to get by, proud that they are retrieving all of these recyclables from the waste land. Their story is heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. Meanwhile, we realize that this is also the story of Vik and his endeavor to create art by using these people and the trash they spend their lives in. He uses them to help him construct his portraits and takes them away for a time from the dump. This is an interesting move. When at first they are proud of their work, they soon come to the realization that what they do might be below them, and not something they ever want to return to. This may be the only downfall of the film, had they not had a discussion about it in the film. Vik and his collegues sit down to talk about what they are doing and, as Vik says, maybe they are doing them a favor by taking the veil from their eyes and opening up the light of opportunity to them.

Waste Land is a good documentary that does nothing more than tell the stories of a fascinating group of people who work at a trash dump in Brazil. The film would be much stronger if it was about just that, but it also has the story of Vik and his rise to prominence as an artist and his work on this particular project. At the same time it does raise some interesting questions that have to do with art, much like Exit Through the Gift Shop did last year. By the end of the film, I found myself caring deeply about these people because director Lucy Walker did such a great job of painting their stories so intricately, allowing time for each person to seep into the mind of the viewer and take hold. And for that reason, Waste Land is worth checking out, if not just to witness the ability of the human spirit.

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