Documentaries are, by their very nature, passive things. Their purpose is to document. On the whole, they are little more than moving portraits of long-gone people and events. Talking heads are usually there to give their recollections/impressions of the subject at hand. And if available, archival footage cements as accurate an image as possible in viewers’ minds. On rare occasion, documentaries may serve as calls-to-arms (Waiting for “Superman” or An Inconvenient Truth); but even then, the films aren’t so much active participants as persuasive pictorial essays. The only action comes from the viewers who are inspired to do something after the fact.
Waste Land is something altogether different—a vivid, true-life narrative that gains purpose, meaning and emotional resonance as it goes on. The film begins, simply enough, with director Lucy Walker (together with co-directors Karen Harley and João Jardim) pointing her camera at Vik Muniz. Muniz is the most popular and most successful modern artist to come out of Brazil. He creates elaborate, montage-like constructions from everyday found materials and then photographs them. The results are clever, witty and thought-provoking. Muniz’ most famous work, for example, is “Sugar Children,” a series of portraits of the children of Caribbean sugar plantation workers made entirely of sugar. Waste Land is not, however, a biography of Vik Muniz. It discusses his work in a quick, concise manner and reveals no more of his life story than is absolutely necessary.
Instead, the film dives headfirst into Muniz’ latest, highly conceptual project. Muniz wants to create portraits of Brazilian catadores—dirt-poor pickers who scavenge Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill by volume in the world. Muniz isn’t sure how this project will unfold. He’s only seen pictures of the landfill on Google Earth. And he has a vague notion of transforming lives through art. Other than that, he’s pretty much winging it. Waste Land is right there with him.
Quickly, the expectations of Muniz (and the viewers) are upended. What starts out as a portrait of an interesting artist with a wild idea soon becomes a mural encompassing some of the vibrant, fascinating men and women who labor at the lowest end of the world’s economic spectrum. The pickers of Jardim Gramacho are proud, colorful people who make a surprisingly credible wage and perform a valuable service. (Several hundred tons of trash are recycled under their efforts every single day.) There’s Tiaõ, the firebrand young founder of the pickers’ union who firmly believes his daughter will grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer. There’s Zumbi, the sturdy worker who dreams of building a library in his favela from books he’s collected in the dump. There’s Isis, the pretty girl who digs through the garbage in short skirts and glittering earrings and whose bright smile hides a dark past.
Now, as an audience, we find ourselves in more sociological territory. At first, we’re right there with Muniz’ wife, worried about disease and crime and wondering what these trash-dwelling people will think about some rich modern artist showing up on their doorstep with high-minded ideas about art. But once we get to know some of the catadores, we realize how human they are and how touching their stories can be. Sure, sympathy for their economic situation is expected. But what we wind up with is something very different. We don’t feel sorry for them because they’re pickers. Recycling isn’t dishonorable. It’s hard work. Selling drugs is dishonorable. Becoming a prostitute is dishonorable. Listening to the often startling wisdom of these workers, we might start to question some of our own values. Who are we well-to-do people to churn out 7,000 tons of garbage a day? What sort of disposable society do we live in that an entire class of people can survive on our leftovers?
And while we’re pondering such thoughts, the film drifts back into the realm of art. At one point, Muniz discusses the transformative moment in art when mere elements (paint or clay or—in this case—trash) coalesce before the eyes of the viewer into something more. In working with several of the catadores to create their own giant-scale self-portraits out of old water bottles, discarded bottle caps and bits of cardboard, Muniz achieves a beautiful sort of synergy. Suddenly, refuse becomes art. Suddenly, the collecting of trash becomes more than just a form of subsistence living. Suddenly, these people are seeing life from outside Jardim Gramacho. (Literally, in the case of Tiaõ, who flies to London to witness the auction of his portrait.) What could have been simple-minded and patronizing becomes rich, emotional and suffused with individual meaning.
Waste Land really is a remarkable film in many ways. In capturing this story, the film becomes part of the narrative. It is about people who have never had a voice, who’ve never even been noticed. And here, for the first time in their life, not only is someone of some international renown interested in them, not only are their stories being told in a film, but they are collaborating in a noble artistic venture. Art, sociology, economy and environment: Waste Land covers a wide range of topics. It’s deeply moving, shockingly beautiful and has such sincere moments of crowd-pleasing joy that it transcends the point-the-lens-and-record style that relegates most documentaries to film festivals and art-house matinees. There’s a word for that. The word is art.