Waste Land – Dir. Lucy Walker
Lucy Walker’s Oscar nominated documentary follows the successful Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz, whose work uses unconventional materials in the creation of new images and iconic recreations, as he embarks on a project centring on the transformative power of art. Muniz asks at the film’s outset if art has the power to change lives and it is this question that the film is centred upon.
Muniz begins the film with the problematic desire to ‘give something back’. The objects of this charitable impulse are the inhabitants of Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, the largest dump in the world and home to around 3,000 people, with whom Muniz works to create large scale art-attacks from objects rescued from the landfill, these are then photographed and sold, the profits going to those involved and the association set up to represent the catadores or ‘pickers’ who collect recyclable materials from the garbage.
From the outset it appears that all involved have approached this project with a certain naiveté. Both Muniz, in the film itself, and Walker, in a piece published in The Observer, recount their belief that the catadores would be ‘the scariest of scavengers, murderers and mental-health hardnuts, garbage-vultures in human form’, abiding by the sense that the dump is where everything bad, worthless and unwanted goes, even people. Their encounters with these people entirely reverse this impression, but what results is an equally simplistic reading. The catadores become a joyous, proud people, photogenic in colourful garments, dancing for the cameras and speaking of the pride they have for themselves and their profession. A clear distinction is made between trash and recyclable material, one is valued the other is not, and they themselves are providing an environmental service that the government ignores.
The film itself is beautiful, particularly in a visual sense. Images of the site and those working in it are full of life and interest, much like Muniz’s photographs, which we are able to see taking shape. But its horrors seem ever present; disease and danger haunt every frame as filth fills the screen and people walk precariously over mountains of waste or crowd round dump-trucks pulling out paper and plastic bottles as the debris prepares to fall frighteningly close. There are frequent moments of humanity and warmth; a wonderful example being the discovery of a letter from Playboy amongst some very middle class rubbish. Interestingly it is only there that the class divide is bridged.
Pride appears less prevalent in the younger generation of workers, who express shame at working in the dump. It is repeatedly referred to as a last resort, better than drug-trafficking or prostitution, there is a dignity to it but a better life is hoped for. And this is the ethical question the film ends up asking, though perhaps somewhat inadvertently. Does taking people out of their lives and showing them another world, before putting them right back where they started, do more harm than good? It’s a problematic question and one that the film does not really resolve, as if it even could, but I wonder if providing people with aspiration and a sense of value can ever be a truly bad thing, even if it does make the hardships they suffer more acute.
Yet for me, Muniz’s motivation appears slightly less clear. Yes, he offers the workers an incredible experience and the money to make a difference in their futures. But from the outset it appears that what the catadores want is to be seen, heard and recognised and, to an extent, Muniz achieves this. However, in the images themselves they are voiceless, unnamed and labelled ‘Garbage Portraits’ which seems to entirely negate the distinction between what is valuable and what isn’t. There are no easy answers to the question of whether or not the works are exploitative and this makes for a compelling, thought provoking viewing experience. Alongside the film’s seemingly optimistic ending we are left with the knowledge that the dump will be closed and a community support structure lost and along with this, the idea that change cannot be controlled.