out of Five
Running time: 98
Well made and impressively structured, this is a heartwarming, genuinely inspirational and ultimately deeply moving film that has deservedly picked up an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.
What's it all about?
Directed by Lucy Walker, Waste Land begins with a brief introduction to Brazilian-born artist-photographer Vik Muniz, who lives and works in Brooklyn and photographs art he creates out of unusual materials. For his next project, Vik has something ambitious in mind, so he travels to Rio de Janeiro and meets the garbage pickers at Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill.
After taking their pictures and projecting them onto an enormous canvas on a warehouse floor, Vik persuades several of the pickers (or catadores) to get involved in creating their own portraits using the recyclable materials they've created. Having already decided to give the proceeds from the project back to the catadores themselves, Vik then takes one of the them to London for the auction of his portrait ...
What makes the film so powerful is the fantastic array of characters that Vik discovers at Jardim Gramacho and the clear effect that their participation in the project has on their lives. Particularly memorable characters include: Tiao, the charismatic leader of the picker's union he co-founded himself (he's also the one who gets to go to London); Isis, a beautiful young woman who suffered a terrible tragedy but who we first meet after she's had her heart broken by a married truck driver; 18- year-old Suelem (who already has two children and, poignantly, is pregnant with a third by the end of the film); and Valter dos Santo, one of the oldest pickers, whose cheerful enthusiasm and little sayings (“99 is not 100”) rub off on everyone he meets.
The film works on several different levels: as a portrait of the artist, as a record of a project (from conception to completion), as a socio-political commentary (the catadores all come from poor backgrounds) and as an inspirational tale of the human spirit. There is, admittedly, the occasional moment where you wonder if Vik is campaigning for sainthood, but this is offset by Walker in a scene where Vik is taken to task by his wife and colleague and they have a serious discussion of the ethical implications of lifting these people out of the garbage only to drop them back in at the end of it.
Waste Land is a well made, impressively structured documentary that is by turns thought-provoking, inspirational and deeply moving. Highly recommended.