Waste Land has a dicey subject that could potentially offend in the wrong hands. The documentary stars Vik Muniz, the Brazilian sculptor and photographer who became something of a phenomenon in the New York art world in the 1990s with a clever conceit: Muniz would recreate photographs of subjects—sometimes on top of the original photographs themselves—with materials such as chocolate, pigment, caviar, dust, and paper, and then photograph the resulting photo/sculpture hybrid, with the photographs of the hybrid eventually displayed as the final work. It’s not hard to grasp Muniz’s acclaim, as his work has a haunting tangibility. You see the layers of his process, how each object joins another to become an ensemble that’s quite literally greater than the sum of its parts. Muniz’s art achieves something somewhat rare: It celebrates the beauty of everyday life without compromising the slyness or mystery of everyday life. Muniz’s art isn’t soggy with cloying sentimentality; it’s alive with invention and playfulness. The picture follows Muniz’s return to Brazil to collaborate on a new project with the workers at Jardim Gramacho, one of the world’s largest landfills, which is located in the notoriously dangerous, poverty-stricken metropolis of Rio de Janeiro.
And that last part is where things could get take a problematic turn, as one is conscious of the project’s potential as a rich man’s attempt to assuage his privileged guilt by—perhaps unavoidably condescendingly—tending to the need of people who live in circumstances that will strike many middle-class Americans as incomprehensibly dire. The workers of Jardim Gramacho, who refer to themselves as catadores, work at least 10-to-12-hour days collecting the recyclables from the vast mounds of waste, then returning to their mostly small huts, which are usually overstuffed with family of varying prior generations who also probably worked at the landfill. The catadores, whom the Brazilian middle-class conveniently ignore in a fashion that should be familiar to many Americans, seem to be seen as a kind of human scavenger crab: barely getting by, conditioned by larger society to think of themselves as nothings on the permanent fringe of something greater.
To their credit, Muniz and director Lucy Walker are clearly aware of the material’s potential to patronize these people. Muniz more than once declares that all people are equal and that his art is an attempt to illustrate that without sanctimonious preaching, a sentiment with which a lot of successful people traditionally pay lip service. Muniz, on screen at least, has the sense and the good manners to live up to his platitudes: He brings the catadores into his circle, recruiting them as full co-collaborators on a series of giant self-portraits that are refashioned from photos using various recyclables pulled from the landfill.
The film gradually develops a few of the catadores as more than just fleeting camera subjects, allowing us to discover, along with Muniz, that many of these people defy our unreasonable—yet prevalent—stereotypical notions of third-world residents as dangerous or even noble simpletons or savages. The most noteworthy catador is Tiao, an attractive, charismatic young man with political aspirations whose efforts to organize an association with the workers of Jardim Gramacho is reinvigorated by the profits from the sales of Muniz’s portraits. (Yes, Muniz donated all profits back to the workers, as this project would be unforgivable otherwise.) More poignantly, there’s Irma, a woman who cooks a variety of stews and other dishes from the usable meat and vegetables the workers find. There’s also, among others, Suelem, who recalls her tragic domestic history with a jolting, immediate pain.
A compelling story in its own right, Waste Land is also clearly meant as an illustration of what’s possible with recycling; it’s a call to arms against our everyday indifference to our considerable waste as well as an attempt at an empathetic portrait of a group of people that many aren’t too anxious to get to know. These aspirations mesh together with an ease that’s unusual in a socially minded documentary because the filmmakers understand the power of their most potent image: the expansive mounds of Jardim Gramacho itself, the titular waste land. The landfill provokes contradictory feelings that give the film a much-needed grit to compliment the sentimentality. At first we see a depressing testament to mankind’s inability to more efficiently make its way on this planet. But, yet, this wasteland is also strangely, ironically beautiful—an abstract art form far beyond Muniz’s, or anyone’s, scope. This wasteland has come to define a group of people who may have otherwise never found definition, and who’re gradually allowing the Jardim Gramacho to redeem itself as a producer of valuable (and lucrative) reused materials.
That’s the ultimate generosity of Muniz’s pursuit here: He illustrates to the catadores their own value, and he communicates that message without relying on words whose meaning could be compromised by cultural difference. The film justifies its occasionally maudlin tone with a moment near the end when a catador says that she’s no longer ashamed of the way she makes her living. We’ve all felt that doubt that’s triggered by suspicions of our own inconsequential nature, and we all yearn for some form of tangible transcendence. Muniz flew to Brazil and personally handed a few people that sort of palpable transcendence, and communication of that primal universality is the ultimate and ideal function of art.
This isn't the kind of DVD you slip in so as to show off your entertainment system to your boozy friends on the weekends. The picture is purposefully a little grainy, which fits the on-the-fly nature of a down and dirty document of the lives of people living on the outskirts of a larger society. The grain is also more specifically thematically fitting here though, as we're given an idea of the grit of Jardim Gramacho, which is clearly meant to contrast with the surprising beauty of the catador art work as well as the stunning aerial shots of the landfill itself. This DVD is a vibrant, detailed transfer of this visual scheme, but it doesn't clean things up too much, which would compromise the variation of texture. The sound mix nicely balances the effective Moby score with subtler details such as the sounds of the workers sorting through the various materials in the junk piles. This is a tasteful, appropriate presentation of Waste Land.
"Beyond Gramacho" elaborates mostly on Tiao's blossoming career as the figurehead of the Gramacho board. There are a few interesting details here and there, but the material is mostly redundant of what the proper picture already told us. "An Untold Story" is an episode—removed from the final cut of the film—detailing the lives of a middle-aged couple who both work at Gramacho. The material itself isn't an especially compelling (you can see why it was cut), but it does prompt a question: Did the filmmakers remove this footage because it was too positive to jive with the other stories of poverty, misery, and torment? This couple is content with life at the Gramacho, and while that is admittedly less dramatically enticing, it would've contributed to a more varied and surprising portrait of the culture. Documentaries should strive to include more of these kinds of contradicting little odds and ends, as contradiction is one of the dependable confusions of life that movies routinely soft-soap or just plain fail to grasp.
A tasteful, appropriate presentation of a canny, entertaining, and, yes, moving art-reform doc.