WEBTAKES: Waste Land
Reviewed by Karen Backstein

Directed by Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, and Joao Jardim; executive produced by Jackie De Botton, Mel De Botton, Fernando Meirelles; produced by Angus Aynsley and Hank Levine; cinematography by Ernesto Hermann, Dudu Miranda, and Heloisa Passos; edited by Pedro Kos; Sound Designer and Supervisor: Andy Berman; Original Music by Moby. Starring Vik Muniz as himself. Color, 90 min. Distributed by Arthouse Films.

In the 1960s and ’70s, revolutionary Third World film had as its aim nothing less than the transformation of society through cinema. By removing the blinders put on audiences by Hollywood’s commercial fare, and championing both an “imperfect” cinema and the active spectator, filmmakers hoped to generate real political consciousness among the masses. But can an artist of any kind really change the world through his work?

Internationally successful Brazilian-born painter Vik Muniz believed that he could make a huge difference. So he left his adopted home in New York to return to Rio—but not to the city’s renowned beaches, tourist sites, or even the gun-packed hillside favelas that have become standard fare in so many recent Brazilian films. Instead, he focused on the ironically named Jardim (garden) Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, and on the people who scavenge in this mind-bogglingly vast mountain of garbage. Muniz was determined to do nothing less than transform their lives through art.

Waste Land—or Lixo Extraordinario (Extraordinary Garbage) in Portuguese—documents Muniz’s work among the catadores, those who dig through the trash to gather all the recyclables, which they in turn sell to large companies eager to get the materials but not to do the labor. Directed by Lucy Walker, with codirectors Karen Harley and Joao Jardim, the film follows Muniz as he chooses several “pickers” to join him in creating a huge painted and collaged canvas, incorporating items scavenged from the trash. He then, additionally, paints portraits of these subjects, often in poses and scenes rich in cultural allusions, such as Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Marat.

Obviously, one factor that distinguishes Waste Land is the landfill itself, a site so astoundingly enormous that it becomes an object of visual and intellectual fascination. Set on the outskirts of the city, Jardim Gramacho receives 7,000 tons of garbage each day, and serves as the central repository for Rio’s trash. A disturbing fun-house mirror on nature’s own landscape, this manmade dump yields dunes and peaks, and, like an actual garden it “grows,” nourished not by sunshine and water but by the never-ending influx of detritus. Also, like a garden, it feeds those who cultivate its dirt. Not only does it provide the scavengers with cash to buy food and other necessities, but in it they also uncover practical treasures, including furniture, books, clothing, and more.

In Waste Land, Jardim Gramacho is presented as the inevitable consequence of our throwaway consumer culture and a concrete representation of the chasm between the extreme poor and even the moderately wealthy, who casually, thoughtlessly toss away mounds of still-usable goods on a regular basis. Seen from an ecological point of view, Gramacho is a microcosm of our planet, increasingly buried under too much human waste for anyone to handle.

But the “garden” is a paradox, too. Waste Land makes it clear that this eyesore—which by rights should not even exist—is actually crucial to thousands of people with no other means of survival. Its planned closing in 2012, noted in the film, means that all the catadores must be trained to do other work or they will have no way of making a living. AndWaste Land makes us care deeply for these humans, for as expansive as Jardim Gramacho is, the people dwarf it. Like the documentaries of Eduardo Coutinho, this film employs “talking-head” interviews to good effect. The intelligence, articulateness, humor, and political savvy of most of the catadores—especially Tiao Santos, an activist who serves as a quasiunion leader—smash any preconceptions we might have about people forced to wade through garbage in order to live. Through their efforts, Gramacho has one of the highest recycling rates anywhere in the world, and the pickers’ work is now officially recognized and government services provided. If Muniz’s own art helps the world see the catadoresin a new light, the film enables the world to hear their voices, too often unheard.

Vik Muniz, too, is a fascinating subject, constantly questioning himself and wondering what will happen to his subjects when his project finally concludes. (His friends and family worry on camera about this, too.) Because of Muniz’s introspection, the film actually brings up and debates many of the same questions that viewers might have. When thecatadores attend the opening of Muniz’s exhibit, and enter to the applause of the upper-class gallery attendees, it’s hard not to think of Cinderella and what will happen when the clock strikes midnight.

Muniz’s larger-than-life depictions could—in the most hopeful interpretation of his project—turn a mostly “invisible” class of people visible once again.

To purchase Waste Land, click here.

Karen Backstein has a Ph.D. from New York University’s Department of Cinema Studies and has taught at several New York area colleges.

Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2