Waste Land (Director: Lucy Walker): Last summer in Toronto we had a garbage strike, and after a few weeks garbage began being piled up in outdoor skating rinks and other city property. Suddenly our trash wasn’t something we could throw away and forget about; we were living next to it, and it stunk. I sincerely hoped that when the strike was settled, people wouldn’t forget the images and the smells, and that it might lead to a more thoughtful approach to recycling, composting and other ways of reducing the amount of stuff we toss away. I’m sad to say that the citizens of our city went right back to our old ways, but it’s always good to be reminded about our garbage. Lucy Walker’s film does that and a whole lot more.
Brooklyn-based but Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz grew up poor on the streets of Sao Paolo. Now successful beyond his wildest dreams, he decides that he wants to give something back to the poor of his homeland. Always an innovator in using interesting materials in his art, he becomes interested in the Jardim Gramacho, Rio de Janeiro’s (and indeed the world’s) largest landfill. At this massive facility, “pickers” are paid to extract recyclable materials from the enormous mountains of trash. Like worker ants, they swarm over each new load of garbage as it is dumped. There are 3,000 of these pickers, and they are represented by an association, headed by the charismatic Tiao. We meet Tiao along with a whole group of pickers who will become participants in Muniz’s most ambitious project to date. He will use garbage to construct large-scale portraits of some of the pickers, posed as if they were in classic paintings.
Along the way, we discover that the pickers have a rich subculture, and while some are proud of their work, others long to leave the dump. Many were part of lower-middle-class families until unexpected tragedies forced them into a life of scavenging. Many have worked at the landfill since they were children, and they claim with dignity that they do honest work, and that is better than selling drugs or prostituting themselves like so many other poor Brazilians.
As the pickers collaborate with Muniz on the huge mosaics, he tells them of his plan to sell photographic prints and return all the money to them. But quite apart from the money, the opportunity to use the materials they work with every day to create art has a profound effect on them. Some find new dignity in what they do, while others gain the confidence to leave picking to try something else. While I was slightly ambivalent about Muniz using these people as material for his work, Walker wisely includes a scene where he and his wife and colleagues argue about just this topic. In the end, he feels that doing anything is better than doing nothing, and I tend to agree.
One of the very beautiful themes of the film is that art is transformative. Muniz talks about that moment when the raw materials (paint, sand, even garbage) is transformed into something different. When we look at a painting, for instance, we move closer and further from the canvas to observe this effect, and with Muniz’ giant trash mosaics, the effect is even more pronounced. But quite apart from the literal meaning, we can see that the raw materials of these pickers’ lives are being transformed by this process into something even more beautiful than paintings.
Reminiscent of Born Into Brothels, Waste Land will hopefully have just as profound an effect on the lives of at least a few of its participants.
Here is the Q&A with director Lucy Walker and producer Angus Aynsley from after the screening, conducted by Hot Docs Director of Programming Sean Farnel: