A subtle and enjoyable undercurrent at this year’s Full Frame was the genius at work; the festival included select looks at Jesse Bernstein, Glenn Gould, Spalding Gray, Jason Moran, Yoshiro Nakamatsu, Louis Sullivan, and, genius in a different shade, Jack Abramoff. No film in this class stood out more than Lucy Walker’s third feature-length documentary, Waste Land, the story of renowned Brazilian artist Vik Muniz’s efforts to create a new series of portraits out of trash, giving value to items that have been separated from their worth. The film is a straight-ahead narrative examination of artistic process. At least, at first.
Learning that the Jardim Gramacho landfill, the world’s highest-volume waste management facility, takes up a northerly corner of Rio proves too enticing for the artist to ignore. He’s soon on site meeting some of the more than 3,000 residents of Rio’s favelas who pick recyclable materials day and night. The movie’s focus quietly shifts from Muniz to the half-dozen pickers he hires as models and extra hands in his studio. Projecting their portraits in massive scale on the floor, Muniz guides the pickers as they fill the dark spaces with dirt and garbage, resulting in a striking series of photographs capturing breathtaking emotional resilience and environmental concern.
This process story is only a surface feature on a documentary of stunning emotional depth, made all the more impressive by the massive scope of the Gramacho landscape and the very few words Waste Land uses to address the fundamental issues at the film’s core: the responsibility of the artist to his subjects, the responsibility of a wealthy countryman to the poorest in his native home, the positive effect a man of vision can have on those around him, and the potentially greater loss that occurs when their time together is over. One of the film’s most remarkable discoveries is the self-assuredness of the pickers in their work, identities, and strength in avoiding, among other things, Rio’s drug culture (their “appetite for life,” as Muniz puts it on screen). Yet this vigor falls away as the workers get a taste of a different reality, and Walker impressively manages and encapsulates the marked evolution of each picker’s ambition; perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of them make it out. The effect on Muniz seems closer to the emotion the film inspires from the audience. His deep love of the workers is palpable in the notably nerve-racking climax at a London auction house, as one of the photographs is sold to benefit a nascent pickers’ association.
Alternately gratifying and heart-wrenching, Waste Land showcases both a remarkable artistic spirit in Muniz and the versatility of the documentary form. Not many fiction films have taken on so many individual storylines with as much quality or impact. And an exceptional cinematic journey just gained another level of importance. It’s a decidedly intimidating look at the task ahead of Rio authorities who plan to polish Brazil’s image before the 2016 Olympic Games. Add Walker’s narrative to the many statements that the nation’s money can be better spent.
The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival runs from April 8 to 11.