Monday, December 20, 2010

Movie Review: Waste Land

Waste Land ***
Directed by:
Lucy Walker
Featuring: Vik Muniz.

Vik Muniz grew up poor in Brazil before coming to America and making a name for himself as an artist. He is a photographer, but what he does is a little more complex than that. He takes pictures, and then uses different materials to make the picture more defined before photographing them again (for instance, for a series he did on the children of sugar cane works, he traced the pictures, and overlaid them with sugar, using the material they use to make the photograph deeper and more relevant). Wanting to give something back to the poorest people in his own country, he decides to travel to the largest dump in Rio de Janerio, and take pictures of the pickers. These are the thousands of people who spend their days going through the trash at the dump looking for recyclable materials, which they then sell by the kilo to recyclers. They remove 200 tons of garbage per day. His plan is to photograph them, and then use the very materials they pick – garbage – to make the pictures. Any proceeds he makes by selling these pictures will be given to the pickers. Waste Land, Lucy Walker’s new documentary, follows him and the pickers for two years as he goes through this process.

Waste Land is one of those documentaries that tries really hard to pull on your heart strings. I often resist these kinds of films, but in this one, I couldn’t help but get sucked in. The people that Muniz meets at the dump are completely different that what you would expect – they are hopeful, lively, and intelligent. They are simply trying to make enough money to support their families without resorting to drug dealing or prostitution – two professions it seems many in their situation fall into.

And the art itself truly is beautiful. Yes, they are photographs of garbage, but what Muniz and his team (including those same garbage pickers) do with it is truly extraordinary. I felt that the pictures themselves – the ones being sold at auction – were only a pale imitation of the massive works that they put together on the floor of huge warehouse. What they did was extraordinary.

The film does have some problems. I almost feel that a short film would have been better for this material. At 90 minutes, it runs out of steam in the last half hour, and drags toward it end. I could have done without all the scenes of liberal guilt that Muniz and his crew feel about what is going to happen to their subjects when they leave – and yet even they add something as most docs don’t ever really address this in the films themselves. Waste Land is a fine movie – an inspirational little doc about making art from garbage and trying to better the lives of people who couldn’t sink much lower than they already are.

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