Waste Land (Arthouse Films, NR)

This trope appeals to audiences and award juries alike, while avoiding the obvious issue that there’s a lot of slumdogs who will never become millionaires.


Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz made his name working in unusual mediums; he’s recreated the Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly, painted a portrait of Sigmund Freud in chocolate and incorporated several kinds of sugar into his “Sugar Children” series, based on photographs of child laborers from a plantation in St. Kitts. So his works in garbage, the subject of Lucy Walker’s documentary Waste Land, can be seen as a logical outgrowth of his career. At the same time, they also provide the opportunity for making socially-conscious statements about the yawning gulf between the rich and poor in modern Brazil, the wastefulness of contemporary material culture and the humanity of those who find themselves on the wrong side of the divide.

Waste Land focuses on a Muniz project centered at the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. Seventy percent of Rio’s garbage ends up here, and it provides employment to a vast army of catadores, or recycling pickers (they make a clear distinction between garbage and recyclables) who comb through the trash for saleable materials like plastic bottles and scrap metal. The pickers live either in the dump itself or in nearby favelas under conditions that are unimaginable to most Americans. And yet, they have formed a cohesive community and, judging by the individuals featured in Waste Land, many among them are at least as articulate and thoughtful as the average American college student.

The idea behind the project filmed in Waste Land is that Muniz, a native of Sao Paolo, will employ some of the catadores to create art which he will photograph, contributing the proceeds from the sales of these prints to projects that will aid the community. Much of the film tracks the process of creating this art: Muniz takes a photograph of one of the pickers, projects it on the floor of a warehouse at a much-enlarged scale then has them fill in the outlines of the photograph with materials gleaned from the dump. Muniz photographs the recreated image, and this becomes the art that is exhibited and sold on the international market. The project is both a critical and financial success; sales of photographs of this “garbage art” have raised over $250,000 for the community and, as indicated in “where are they now” postscripts, several of the featured pickers have left the dump and taken up new careers.

Waste Land has been showered with international awards, including the Amnesty International Film Prize from the Berlin International Film Festival and a slew of audience choice awards from, among others, Sundance, the Seattle International Film Festival, and the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. It’s easy to see the appeal—Muniz is a current darling of the art world, the film documents a socially conscious project and is skillfully-made (including great cinematography by Ernesto Herrmann, Dudu Miranda, and Heloisa Passos, and with original music by Moby). It provides a message of hope while underlining the human dignity of those living in poverty. So if you’re in the market for a feel-good documentary about those less fortunate than yourself, Waste Land definitely fills the bill. Personally, I was less taken by the film (although I still think it is worth seeing), mainly because it feels disingenuous.

Problem number one is that it’s all a setup. Muniz is a trendy artist who knows how to play the publicity game and this is an art project to boost his career, with any benefits to the catadores being part of the concept that makes the project more attractive to potential purchasers. The choice to focus on a few individuals, no doubt selected for their charisma, stifles larger questions (Is there no crime within the favelas?) and draws on the well-trod formula of focusing on a few attractive underdogs who overcome the odds. This trope appeals to audiences and award juries alike, while avoiding the obvious issue that there’s a lot of slumdogs who will never become millionaires.

Second is that the art itself is mildly interesting at best. The works created for this film (as with much work by Muniz) are more interesting as ideas than they are in reality; take away the back story and you are left with skillful graphic designs whose equals can be found in any number of magazines and billboards. But you can’t entirely blame a guy for providing the art world with what it wants, and Muniz has found the sweet spot of being just original enough to cash in with the moneyed individuals and institutions that constitute the international art market. I just wish the whole effort felt less like exploitation, and that I felt less like a fish on the hook after watching this film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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