Waste Land

underdog's picture

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ***½

This year has been packed with documentaries about art and about the environment, but the Oscar-nominated Waste Land manages to take on both topics comfortably, without preaching, and with a positive outlook besides. Lucy Walker's film is inspirational without seeming self-righteous, moving without being hackneyed.

It begins as the well-established Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz decides on his newest project. He goes to Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest garbage pile near Rio de Janeiro; there, he meets a handful of pickers, people who work on the garbage heap, pulling out recyclable materials. They each have amusing/disturbing stories of the things they have found. Stunning footage shows huge trucks dumping fresh piles of garbage and the pickers poised and ready to start rummaging before the junk has even settled; they often look as if they're about to be buried.

Muniz chooses several pickers and takes their photographs. From there, he sets up shop in a huge warehouse, where he projects the photo onto the warehouse floor. The lines and shadows of the photo are traced and filled in with bits of garbage. Then the projector is shut off and the arranged garbage is photographed anew, making a portrait in refuse. The results are quite striking, including one portrait that imitates David's The Death of Marat (and used for Waste Land's poster).

The artist takes the results to an auction, and the paintings sell for a small fortune; he then gives all the proceeds to the original subjects, to do with what they will. In a way, this makes Waste Land another wealth fantasy movie, wherein money solves all problems. But at the same time, Muniz himself confesses that he's less happy now that he has everything than when he was first starting out and wanted things.

Director Walker (Devil's Playground), and her two co-directors Karen Harley and João Jardim, spend a good amount of time with all their subjects, emphasizing the bond that forms between the pickers and the famous artist, rather than the artist as celebrity. It's interesting to hear many of the same stories and comments again and again, such as, "this is better than being a prostitute." The film genuinely captures both the bitter and the sweet about the job of picking.

Pop star Moby provides the gorgeous music for the film, adding to its generous, heartfelt mood. Waste Land has currently been short-listed as one of the Academy's documentary features this year, along with Exit Through the Gift Shop. For those that found that latter film too tricky or cynical, Waste Land provides a feel-good flipside.

Arthouse Films's DVD is accompanied with two bonus features: "Beyond Gramacho" (18 minutes) and "Untold Story" (10 minutes), both of which explore the story beyond the parameters of the theatrical film.

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