Thursday, March 3, 2011

Waste Land. (2010)
Lucy Walker, Karen Harley and João Jardim

Every once in a while a documentary comes along that's so illuminating and alive with life that you soak in the images of a filmmaker you learn to trust, you believe he is at least trying to relay a truth -- and the "truth" takes on a capital "T" in your heart. Sometimes when someone aims at a truth, they actually hit the stuff, and those moments are stirring. It seems we're sometimes starved for Truth, that we actually need it in order to believe in Reality.

Waste Land is once such film that strives for "Truth," and settles wonderfully into a humane "Reality." It should sit alongside other fine docs that have done a similar service, films we remember so well because they've been faithful to a truth, and yet hopeful and breathing with the full of human potential: Stevie, My Flesh and Blood, Young at Heart, Born Into Brothels, Doctors Without Borders, The Fog of War, Budrus. These are hallmark works that challenge us to give, change, and overcome the odds -- the self-imposed ones as well as the cultural. These films to me are a picture embodiment of the age-old expression of success: "What the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve!"

Waste Land is an achievement in more than one way: as a doc fully capturing both progress and art, and as a springboard for the merging of art with social justice. It starts out as a phase in the life of artist Vic Muniz, a Brazilian New Yorker. He's a master of his trade, a culturally-savvy avant-garde pioneer, globally known for large-scale works which dabble in multiple mediums in their design. In the past, Muniz has been fascinated with elements of the earth ranging from chocolate to sugar, cotton, wire and thread. In Waste Land you find him in Rio in the largest trash dump in the world, working with local catadores -- trash pickers by choice -- creating art from trash, with empty wine bottles and cans, lids and used tires, computer wires and diapers and rotten food parts.

Muniz photos the pickers in retroactive art poses, each scene created with what they've been picking and wading through. He then blows up the photo, creating an outline as large as a basketball court, and sets it on the floor in his hideaway studio. Teams of workers fill in the outline with more refuse dragged in from the dump. He takes a second photo from above, blowing up the new creation to gigantic proportions, making an extra-large poster-size photo that's framed and entered in exhibits at quite a few art museums. The works are auctioned off to the highest bidder.

I don't know how much of the money Muniz made from the project he ended up keeping himself. What I do know are the tears on many faces after selling their work for cash. The end credits show the project did a lot of good for many of the workers, even leading to the establishment of classes for those who had nothing to do with the project. Teachings are now offered to better their lives and get out of a picker's life, if that's what they want. Many of the pickers end up financially helping their families and transitioning to other jobs -- when before they'd thought that was out of reach.

What Muniz does, with and for these people, challenges every viewer to bring as much of heaven to earth as we can. That here, and now, there is a calling to benefit others; that if we're only living for ourselves we have truly missed the mark. We can't all do something on the scale of Muniz and his art project, but there's a right way to live, using what we have to benefit the world. To not offer the very best of ourselves is to withhold our best potential.

This is a story very much like Born Into Brothels which shows how art can be more than just a soul-stirring experience. Sure, it moves us, but it can also move us to a better place, moving the marrow in our bones to a desire to move and change the world.

It was interesting to see it the night before the Oscars and compare it with the other nominations for Best Documentary. Exit Through the Gift Shop is basically tricking people with art. The year's winner, Inside Job is about soulless bastards who live to empower themselves to riches and suck the life from others in the process. I do wish Waste Land would have won in this category. It is rare that a truthful film can be so inspirational.


  1. You said it all!! It's a wonderful movie, very motivating!(at least for me, makes me feel like I need to do something better for the world too) Thank so much for making me watch this... Probably, I wouldn't do it back in Brazil.

  2. Bel, you can't imagine what a joy it was for me to see the film with you, the day before you headed back to Brazil. And it was probably good for us to get out of the house anyway, considering how sick 'lil G. was all weekend. Hope the next time we see you that we are healthier... Let's Skype sometime soon, I'm sure the kids are ready to say "Hi!" :)


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