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/
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.
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-