Art that doesn’t pretty up its subject: ‘Waste Land’ is a careful study
Lucy Walker’s documentary “Waste Land’’ is just what the film’s website says it is: “stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the alchemy of the human spirit.’’ The movie is about a select few pickers — “catadores’’ — employed to salvage recyclable materials at Jardim Gramacho, a massive outdoor garbage dump in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian artist Vik Muniz arrives at Gramacho from his home in New York eager to apply his found-material photography to the catadores. You expect to be stirred. You expect transformation. You expect somebody to mention The Human Spirit. You might even expect to roll your eyes. But Walker is careful to present Muniz as self-aware. One of the highlights of the film, aside from the complex exuberance of the catadores themselves, is the way in which Walker chooses to present her famous subject and the indigent objects of his cause.
Muniz’s photos index happenings of his own arrangement, like, say, a sky-written heart. Over three years, Muniz visited Gramacho with a small team that included the photographer Fabio Ghivelder. He chose seven catadores whose photographs he would develop at billboard size, then recast in the garbage from the dump. The film shows him explaining to each potential subject what he intends and how the proceeds from the sale of the works will go to them and the catadores association.
The movie is essentially a making-of film. The production is there when the workers’ offices are robbed of their pay. But it’s built largely around the creation of the finished work. That Muniz recruits the catadores to participate in the creation of the art, arranging discarded dolls, teddy bears, water bottles, plastic laundry baskets, etc. on the giant canvases is compelling more than it is manipulative. Watching a picker like Suelem Pereira Dias, who’s 18, with two children and another on the way, or Isis Rodrigues Garros, who fell into tragedy after her son’s death, crouch down and arrange junk on her enormous likeness becomes powerful.
You’re never not aware of the symbolism and metaphors that garbage and recycling become — for reuse and redemption, for consumption and excess. And Walker includes extraneous conversations about the dump’s larger socioeconomic implications. As the camera glances at Gramacho’s vastness and way up at the mountains of trash and the safety-vested workers bent atop their peaks, Muniz observes that millionaires’ trash mixes here with that of the poor. Walker thinks that’s more profound than it is. (Having “Richie Rich’’ on the television as the film follows Suelem around her family’s cramped shack is excessive, too.)
The movie is otherwise scrupulous. In fact, it becomes about the scrupulousness of Muniz’s enterprise, and, ultimately, of any such semi-philanthropic or guilt-borne art. An argument among Muniz, his wife, and Ghivelder about whether it’s right to take everybody to London for an auction is the moral crux of the movie: Will the art change them, will they be willing to return to Gramacho, and if they don’t, isn’t that a good thing? It lasts a minute or two, but Walker really could have spent more time letting them hash out an answer. Maybe she thinks she has one. Muniz grew up poor and believes that what he’s doing can only benefit Suelem, Isis, and the other vivid men and women in his work. His reservations have more to do with how he’ll come off in changing their lives.
This is much saner filmmaking from Walker, who, this past summer, appeared to lose her mind warning us about nuclear holocaust in “Countdown to Zero.’’ Her new movie is patient, emotionally thorough, and free of easy string-pulling (although perhaps it’s time for a moratorium on documentaries whose soundtracks are pumped with horror sounds). With just a few heartless or naive tweaks, Muniz easily could have seemed self-serving and the catadores pitiable or merely sad. But everyone here is complex and strong. Several of the women insist they don’t want to work in the dump, while a couple of the men have used it as means of community-building and organizing. Muniz, it appears, has inspired pickers of both minds to follow their bliss.