Directed by Lucy Walker
The notion that everything particular to a culture can be gleaned from its waste is hardly new, but Brooklyn-based, Sao Paulo-born artist Vik Muniz's "Pictures of Garbage" project takes that idea a step further, likening Rio de Janeiro's pickers of recyclable materials to the items they sift through daily to make a living. High atop the Jardim Gamacho dump—the largest in the world in terms of the daily volume it receives, a shifting mass of trash likened at one point to a giant hill of Jell-O, with a beautiful view of Guanabara Bay—a workforce of several thousand pickers with few options for employment (mostly illegal) remove salvageable materials from the piled waste of Rio and its surrounding suburbs. Picking through different bags of trash, delivered by hulking, dripping trucks, the participants in Muniz's project pore over their contents like developing-world colleagues of the American Studies academics in Don DeLillo's White Noise: "This is poor man's trash," "this man subscribed to Playboy, and now he's dead." Bodies are found here too, especially when drug wars rage in nearby favelas, but also those of infants. Muniz, though, is more interested in the people tossed out by the rest of Brazilian society who make their living on this swelling, swaying trash heap.
Lucy Walker's sometime uneven documentary on the project opens with its very matter of fact, hey-look-at-this-thing-I-found genesis, as Muniz speaks to his Brazilian assistant via Skype from his Clinton Hill studio and explores the dump with his wife on Google Earth. The early going, ponderous and poorly shot with extreme, shaky close-ups on speakers' faces, eventually finds pay-dirt as the artist travels to Jardim Gamacho and begins the year-long collaborative process of finding the pickers who will not only be his subjects but also his assistants. Muniz's work has always bridged sculpture and photography, the acts of assembling and image-making. Here he collects not only materials but also people for his photos, effectively casting Walker's documentary, filling it with a dynamic ensemble of emotionally strong and warm individuals. Some consider picking a form of environmental activism—indeed, a dump administrator points out that they fulfill an essential function, removing 200 tons of recyclable materials from the site every day. Others find a supportive community of friends and colleagues that they have no interest in leaving behind. A few hate having to do this work, and want out as soon as possible. Most flow through these fluid categories at various points in Waste Land. Certainly, once they've worked at Muniz's local studio for a couple of weeks—or been robbed of their entire union's wages at knifepoint—they're ready to give up the picker's life.
Recalling another sweet, emotionally see-sawing art-activism doc, Born Into Brothels, the ethics of Muniz and Walker's inter-related projects are potentially very problematic. As in that 2004 film, one of the subjects, arguably the most charismatic, is selected to travel to a major cultural capital as a mascot for the project. Here, Tiaõ, the president of the pickers' union, accompanies Muniz to the prestigious auction house Phillips de Pury & Company's London location to sell his portrait—created by photographing a sculptural arrangement of recyclable materials modeled after a photo Muniz took of him at the dump. The auction, an unconventional one for a mid-price range contemporary artist, goes very well, as do subsequent sales, generating a quarter-million dollars for the pickers. That sum dwarfs ethical questions raised during a brief argument between Munoz, his assistant and his wife over the artist's responsibility to his disempowered collaborators. One wishes that scene had lasted longer, with Walker wading in as she's equally implicated. After all, what better piece of PR could an artist ask for than a feature-length doc proving what a brilliant and caring fellow he is? Koons and Hirst—the latter of whom is discussed briefly, hilariously, as Tiaõ wanders the de Pury auction house—got nothing on this.
All cynicism aside, though, Muniz's semi-selfless gestures do seem to come from a genuine desire to help people. Walker conveys this most effectively when he returns to his plush Brooklyn home-studio and fidgets restlessly before flying back to Brazil to help a little more. In addition to insights into Muniz's artistic process and each participant's personal narrative, Waste Land's most incredible passages are those devoted to that landmass of waste. The spectacle takes on sci-fi shades—specifically, the trash compactor scene from Star Wars—during a stunning nighttime sequence, when fewer pickers crowd around the trash trucks wearing headlamps, the jittery cones of light catching dripping muck, colorful materials and menacing steel monsters in their beams. Tractors, trucks and bulldozers moving trash around, not unlike the pickers do shortly thereafter on the studio floor, shape a massive, living sculpture that's paradoxically deadly and life-sustaining, environmentally abhorrent and yet a haven for recycling. Muniz, like the pickers, digs through the detritus to find whatever scraps might still be of use. In the process, very little is wasted.
Opens October 29