Buried amid the trash of the world’s largest dump, Waste Land manages to tell a treasure of a story. Lucy Walker’s documentary about the lives of Brazilian trash-pickers combines honest, yet stunning videography with small moments of humanity that are equally heart-breaking and uplifting.
In Waste Land, the exclusive world of high-class art meets the world of the extreme poverty in Jardim Gramacho, Rio de Janeiro’s main landfill, population 3000. These trash-pickers, or catadores, live in favelas, Brazilian slums, surrounding Gramacho and spend their days combing the landfill for recyclable materials to sell.
The documentary follows Vic Muniz, a popular Brazilian modern artist, working in the medium of found objects, who has made the big-time. Although he works out of a trendy Brooklyn studio these days, he too has humble beginnings in Brazil.
Vic sets out to create a project that will make a difference in his beloved Brazil. “What I really want to be able to do is to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials they work with everyday,” he says.
And for 99 intense and glorious minutes, we watch the process unfold and simultaneously grow to care about the subjects of his art, who are the characters of this documentary. We watch as Vic and his wife first see the immensity of Gramacho from their comfy New York home via Google Maps and are stunned silent.
When Vic and his assistants arrive at the landfill, followed by the documentary crew, you cannot help but be astounded by the poverty. But one of the things this film does best is that it doesn’t allow you to wallow in these depressing scenes. Instead we are met with jokes from the workers, who have no idea who this camera crew is. One man yells out “look they are shooting for Animal Planet,” while a young woman jokingly insists on taking her hair down before being on camera.
We meet Tiaõ, the president of a co-op group that works to improve the lives of the catadores. Tiaõ may work in a dump, but he names Machiavelli and Nietzsche as his favorite writers, both of which he read after finding copies amid the trash. He and his friend Zumbi have even set up a library out of the books they find as a part of the co-op.
And we meet Suelen, an 18-year-old with two kids who has been working in Gramacho since she was seven years old. Although she doesn’t love the job, she’s just glad she hasn’t had to turn to prostitution.
As Vic photographs them and five others, we see their individual personalities shine through and they become more than just catadores. After the pictures are taken, they are blown up to epic proportions and projected on the ground of a warehouse, and the lines of the photo are re-created entirely with trash from the landfill. The subjects of the portraits are brought in to help with the project. This insight into the creative world of art changes all of their lives in some way, whether they end up staying in Gramacho or finding a way out.
The story is told completely through the interactions between Vic and the catadores and the occasional confessional-style interview. It alternates between English and Portuguese with English subtitles. The camerawork has the same kind of no-nonsense appeal. It feels like watching a news story. Sometimes the camerawork is shaky as the camera attempts to catch a particularly poignant moment and there is little advanced movement, beyond a few pans. It’s not flashy or lit in a particularly sophisticated way, but at times, the sun burning down on the mountains of trash creates a visually gritty and breath-taking view.
Somehow Walker manages to balance the tone of the film perfectly, as it teeters between extreme despair and undying hope. Although the catadores we meet are amazing individuals who manage to laugh despite their hardships, when the art project ends, many of them struggle with the return to Gramacho. The film examines whether the art truly changed their lives or only made them want something they can’t have.
Waste Land shows a side of poverty that is slightly unbelievable for many of us, but Walker shies away from preaching anything. She shows a horrific way of life, but at the same time, she never degrades the catadores. And she doesn’t insist, nor even suggest anything that we, as viewers, should do. She simply wants to show us this slice of life and this art venture that started from a simple idea and grew into a project that raises $250,000 for the catadores of Gramacho and inspires the rest of the world.
(The photo is from Waste Land, which is produced by Almega Projects and O2 Films, and is used for promotional purposes. To see a trailer for the documentary, please check below.)