A sprawling Rio landfill stars in an unforgettable doc

Waste Land

on October 29, 2010 by Steve Ramos

The journey of discovery undertaken by Brazilian artist Vik Muniz takes him to the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, and a place called Jardim Gramacho, the world's largest landfill. Using garbage from the manmade mountain, Muniz creates photographs of the many people who work there as "catadores" or "pickers," laborers who sort out recyclable items from the landfill for approximately $25 per day. Joining Muniz and experiencing her own artistic awakening is London-native and documentary director Lucy Walker who filmed Muniz and the pickers for three years as they co-create photographic representations of themselves. Walker's documentary Waste Land, which received the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, has the potential to not only become the top-earner for New York-based Arthouse Films when it opens Friday at the Angelika Film Center but also one of the year's best-reviewed documentaries.

Inspired by his "Sugar Children" series, photos of the children of poor Caribbean plantation workers recreated using sugar from their fields, Muniz leaves behind his Brooklyn studio and travels to Rio seeing Jardim Gramacho and its community of 3,000 pickers as resources for his next, even larger art project. But something changes for Muniz once he starts work at Jardim Gramacho; he becomes friends with many of the pickers and relates to them through his own humble origins. From these experiences his work at Jardim Gramacho slowly ceases to be about an artist and his subjects and becomes about an artist and his newfound collaborators.

Just as Muniz changes over time spent with the pickers of Jardim Gramacho, Walker's film also changes from an artist's profile to the story of an artist whose life and work changes by opening up to and collaborating with the community around him.

Walker, co-directors João Jardim and Karen Harley, and editor Pedro Kos may sidestep environmental issues, like pollution, but they understand that art's ability to transform all who take part in it is the inspirational heart of Waste Land. Moby provides upbeat music via some of his most popular songs. Cinematographer Dudu Miranda and co-cinematographers Heloisa Passos and Aaron Phillips create great beauty out of the massive landfill, but it's important to note that Waste Land is not a landscape film about the landfill itself. Instead, Walker, who also premiered a second documentary at Sundance, Countdown To Zero, about the threat of nuclear proliferation, shows that Waste Land is ultimately about the pickers, Tiaõ, Zumbi, Suelem among others, who rise up through the power of their own artistic accomplishments.

Exceeding all the promise she displayed in her little-seen 2002 documentary Devil's Playground, about Amish teenagers, and her 2007 Tibetan documentary Blind Sight, Walker shows herself to be the rare documentary filmmaker capable of combining the artist profile with sociopolitical themes and human-interest drama. While its modest release may prevent Waste Land from reaching the box office earnings of this year's leading art doc Exit Through the Gift Shop, it will bring Walker much-deserved recognition and turn out to be top earner for Arthouse Films.

Distributor: Arthouse Films
Director: Lucy Walker with João Jardim, Karen Harley
Producers: Hank Levine and Angus Aynsley
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 98 min
Release: October 29 NY, November 5 LA


Tags: Lucy Walker, João Jardim, Karen Harley, Hank Levine, Angus Aynsley

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