Director: Lucy Walker
Running Time: 90 minutes
Modern art is crap, a response given to Brazilian artist Vik Muniz when he asks Tiaõ – a worker in a large Rio de Janeiro dump – what his view is of him and his peers work. For some, this answer may be one we share ourselves, unable to grasp exactly what it is we’re looking at. Muniz though takes this one step further and aims to create art from crap, actual crap.
Waste Land documents Muniz’s return to his home country from Brooklyn to visit and spend time in the world’s largest landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro named Jardim Gramacho. On his visit, he meets the garbage pickers – known as catadores – and chooses a select view for portraits that will eventually be made into what can only be described a giant garbage Art Attack. From here he plans to sell the portraits to the highest bidder and give the money back to his subject.
Lucy Walker’s third feature documentary is both shocking and uplifting in equal measurements. The initial footage of catadores sifting through refuse where the land is covered with rubbish as far as the eye can see (Jardim Gramacho takes in over 7000 tonnes daily) is one that is hard to digest as someone whose own exposure to garbage is tossing it in a bin and forgetting about it. This rubbish though, exists in the lives of these people everyday. Along with Muniz, Walker puts the workers at ease and unobtrusively let’s them tell their stories on how they ended up here along with their dreams and aspirations.
As you can imagine, a lot of the stories revolve around broken home and relationships. It is how they continue through it all that is truly awe-inspiring. None more so than Tiaõ, a picker since he was 11 years old, he was moved by texts he found thrown out to make a difference by setting up the Association of Pickers Of Jardim Gramacho – pivotal in improving workers rights and enhancing recycling techniques. Another worker, Zumbi collects every book he finds in the hope of one day creating a library.
The common feeling with all the workers here is although the work is not glamorous, they are working. While many in the surrounding favelas have turned to a life of crime or to the street to prostitute themselves, their work embeds them with a glowing sense of pride. They are an extremely amicable bunch of people so seeing their reactions to both their portraits and places in an art gallery is an emotional payoff that will have you smiling long after the credits roll.
A surprising highlight is the soundtrack provided by Moby, a return to form for everyone’s favourite (or hated) bald vegan. His score shimmers beautifully alongside the striking footage presented.
Comparison’s have been made with Slumdog Millionaire and while somewhat valid, are quite lazy to make. The story of extreme poverty is there but the workers of Jardim Gramacho here are never likely to win the lottery, their happiness lies in having the support of others and a stopgap in a life that had veered slightly off course.