Review: Waste Land (2010)
Lucy Walker’s Waste Land (which lost the Best Documentary Feature Oscar to Inside Job a month ago) is a film that takes the longest time to figure out what it really is about, and arguably never manages to do so. What would be (and is) a major weakness, however, ends up turning into what may be the film’s biggest strength, as the choices it makes (or fails to make) raise much more interesting questions than its subject otherwise would.
The film’s focus, at least at first, is visual artist Vik Muniz, who was born in Brazil but has lived and worked in the United States for the past twenty-odd years. An overview of his work informs us that he is mostly famous for making portraits out of everyday materials; for instance, in the mid-90s he received critical acclaim for his “Sugar Children,” portraits of children working in sugar cane fields made entirely out of sugar (like many a contemporary visual artist, Muniz loves himself some questionable puns). For his next project, Muniz informs us, he has decided to make art out of garbage.
As it turns out, the head of his studio in Rio de Janeiro has found the perfect place to do so through a Youtube video: Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in the world, right in the middle of the favelas of Rio. Standing in the living room of his fancy New York apartment, Muniz explains that there is a social aspect to his work, and that he hopes that it will help draw attention to the living conditions of the people of Jardim Gramacho. “The worst thing about Brazil,” he explains, “is classism, how the rich think they are better than the rest of the country simply because they are rich.” Then he goes back to his computer to skype with his assistant, and they both agree that working in Jardim Gramacho might be dangerous “because there probably are a lot of junkies there.” I hope you’re enjoying the irony there.
Jardim Gramacho turns out to be nothing like Muniz expected, apart from the fact that it does look like a giant junkyard. Its people are neither junkies nor criminals, but honest workers who, for the most part, are proud of the job they do. The “catadores,” as they call themselves, go through the garbage looking for recyclables, which they then sell to recycling companies. They’re organized into a union, the ACAMJG, headed by one Tião Santos, an energetic and enthusiastic young man striving to make living conditions better for his fellow catadores.
Walker soon realizes that Santos, along with the few other pickers who agree to work with Muniz, is a much more interesting subject than the artist himself. Soon Muniz disappears for entire 10- or 15-minutes stretches, because Walker would rather let the catadores talk about their lives and film them in their most private moments, such as when an 18-year-old mother of two goes back to see her children, who are being raised by her mother in another favela. Waste Land, though, never addresses the question of its own voyeurism; when one of the workers breaks down because she can’t imagine going back to work in the landfill after her experience creating art with Muniz, the camera keeps rolling. Muniz’s own borderline exploitative behavior towards the catadores is brought to light if never explicitly called out, but Walker doesn’t seem to realize that she is basically doing the same thing.
To be fair to Muniz, he does stop to think about what he is doing every once in a while. The film’s most interesting sequence is a talk the artist has with several of his assistants, during which he wonders about the ethics of waltzing into those people’s lives, giving them a glimpse of an entirely different world, before disappearing forever and leaving them to sort everything out for themselves (though the scene is pretty short, the editing makes it clear that the discussion went on for a while). Even then, Muniz’s team seem unable to grasp the reality of the situation. “When we got here,” his assistant says, “I thought they seemed very happy about their lives. Now I realize it’s probably got a lot to do with denial.” Nuanced thinking doesn’t seem to be their forte–either the people of Jardim Gramacho are junkies, or they are the most beautiful people in the world; either they are genuinely happy, or they are in denial. (The obligatory “where are they now?” segment at the end of the movie nicely contradicts that simplistic analysis: while some of the workers did leave Jardim Gramacho, some stayed, and one even left then came back because she missed her coworkers.)
The parallel between Muniz’s actions and what she herself is doing yet again seems to escape Walker–or at least she refuses to confront it, preferring to turn the focus back on Muniz as he visits his parents back in São Paulo. This, predictably, is the weakest segment of the film, only saved by Muniz’s finally coming to terms with his own prejudices and admitting that, had his life taken a slightly different turn during his childhood, he might have ended up at Jardim Gramacho, too. Then it’s back to Muniz’s makeshift studio, where we see him and the workers of Jardim Gramacho (the latter doing most of the heavy lifting, make of that what you will) create giant portraits out of garbage. The film’s lack of focus is compounded by its late attempt at being a reflection on modern art; unfortunately, it has little to say that hasn’t already been said better by Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (though Tião Santos’s reaction upon running into a Damien Hirst installation in a London gallery is at once hilarious and refreshing).
“What happens in the world’s largest trash city will transform you,” the Waste Land poster (above) says. It may be the cynic in me talking, but taken at face value, Waste Land is little more than yet another “we’re all humans after all”/”art really can make people’s lives better” documentary, and I’m always somewhat surprised, not to mention disappointed, that we actually need documentaries to remind us of those simple facts (yes, the cynic in me also happens to be an idealist). What makes Waste Land more than your run-of-the-mill “inspirational” film is the questions it raises about the genre of the documentary itself. What prevents it from being a very good film is its failure to actually confront those questions head-on and try to address them.