Waste Land

Waste Land

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.

Official site of the film

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:

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Duration: 21:21



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One Response to Waste Land

  1. heather says:

    Wonderful. thanks James. i want to see this doc­u­ment­ary.


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