Waste Land Review
Even if it was just a documentary about the catadores – the people who make a living picking through the biggest rubbish dump in Brazil for materials to recycle – Waste Land would still be a fascinating and worthwhile documentary of humanitarian interest. Lucy Walker’s film captures some of the sense of scale (if not the stench) of the Jardim Gramacho, where 70% of the rubbish generated by the people of Rio de Janeiro ends up, as well as much of the humanity of the people who work there, but the film has another dimension – making it into an art project.
There’s a risk then in the film becoming imbalanced in favour of promoting modern artist Vik Muniz – originally born in that part of the world, Vik could easily have ended up working in the same place, but instead he’s an artist of world renown, living in New York. There’s even a risk that the project he comes up with – certainly the biggest that the artist has ever worked on – could not just overshadow the human stories that lie beneath it, but could end up being exploitative and in somewhat dubious taste. These are people’s lives – they are at the bottom of the scrapheap, literally as well as metaphorically speaking – wading through the most filthy trash in the most degrading of circumstances for $20-25 a day. What do they care about an artist who wants to photograph them and work with the garbage they have gathered for recycling?
The first surprise then – apart from the idea of Muniz looking for inspiration in Jardim Gramacho in the first place – is that the people living and working there seem to be happy with their lives and more than willing to work with the artist, even if they don’t initially understand what he is trying to achieve. They prove to be remarkably open about the circumstances that have taken them to work on a dump site and are philosophical about what they do, proud to be earning an honest wage rather than turning to drugs and prostitution like many others they know. More than that, they also have a sense of pride in the work they are doing, helping to recycle waste (there are no organised recycling collections in Brazil) that others consign to bags and then forget all about, never realising where it ends up or what happens to it.
There’s a metaphor in there somewhere about the waste and recycling of lives since, as the filmmaker and the artist discover, many of the objects are reused, books thrown out are picked up and read, the workers attempting to improve their lives and hopefully someday move out of the Jardim Gramacho. Lucy Walker’s documentary is wonderfully open to such imagery and suggestion, bringing it out in the most natural of ways. Vik Muniz recognises this too and it’s this concept that he arrives at after spending time getting to know the people working in the dump, listening to their stories and taking photographs that attempt to covey something of their personality, character and their inner lives. Eventually he intends to make use of these people and the rubbish they collect (and the metaphor that comes with it) and take it to a bigger scale.
In order for it to work however it needs to be more than just a statement, and it needs to be more than just creating a work of art will undoubtedly enhance the artist’s own reputation through a prestigious art gallery exhibition. It also needs to be more than just awareness raising. The project’s aim therefore is to make money that will go back to a union, an organisation set-up by the workers themselves to help and improve the conditions of the catadores, and contribute to the improvement of their lives. There are some issues that Vik Muniz needs to grapple with in terms of the impact his intervention will have on real people, much in the same way a documentary filmmaker owes a sense of responsibility to how he portrays his subjects. I would have liked to have seen more of the debate about this in the film, but for Muniz, there is actually little doubt about the nature of what he is attempting to achieve. How can it be wrong to give some of these people a little hope, dignity and even limelight, even if it is only for a limited time?
Realistically speaking, it is likely that the work achieved by Muniz – his photographs bought by the rich for their art collections – and Lucy Walker’s film itself, are likewise destined to only have a limited interest to a very specific audience, who will find the subject fascinating but forget about it soon after viewing. That will undoubtedly be true for most people, but there’s a chance that the money raised through the photographs and the interest generated by the film might contribute towards some lasting changes. Waste Land however is such a well-made film, striking a perfect balance in what it shows and what it tells, that it’s hard to imagine that it will not impress, distress and affect every viewer who sees it on some deep level.