Waste Land

This documentary follows artist Vic Muniz over three years as he creates art in Jardim Gramacho, the Brazilian land fill that is the largest trash heap in the world. The film was directed by Lucy Walker, a documentary filmmaker who uses the technique of following memorable characters on life-changing journeys. The award-winning director said "I have always been interested in garbage: What it says about us. What in there embarrasses us, and what we can't bear to part with. Where it goes and how much of it there is. How it endures. (filmsfortheearth.org)."

This is social documentary at its best. It reveals the people in a situation over which they have little control, the lack of governmental control that causes the situation, and what photography can do to elevate the people and the situation. This film is an expression of the possibilities in documentary photography .. the possibilities of doing good, of righting wrongs, of lifting people to new heights, of combating evil.

  • Originality : The subject itself is original but the way in which the pickers (the people who sort through the garbage to find recyclable items they can sell) are represented is unlike anything else that I have seen. They are not shown as poor, downtrodden people, although that is what they are. But like few other people in a situation like this, they read the books they find in the trash and they discuss Machiavelli and the art of the Renaissance. This extraordinary representation reveals people who intelligent and hard-working and loving. They were not sad or sorrowful; they were not angry about their position or the hand life had dealt them. They were proud of earning their livings. This is not to say that nothing ever goes wrong; the story of the labor organizer who carried $6000 of the pickers' wages to the bank but was robbed at gunpoint before he could deposit it is evidence of what can go wrong. "Sometimes I just want to give up," he said.
  • Purpose : Muniz says he is trying to step away from fine art because he believes it is an exclusive place to be. What he really wants to do is to be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials that they deal with every day. The film reveals how this happens.
  • Style : The film's style was not just talking heads and wide action shots. Walker used camera effects to emphasize the conditions of the land fill and the people who worked there. Not everything was in focus. Motion blur was often evident as were camera flares.
  • Emotion evoked : Muniz said that when you see the appetite for life that these people have, it is inspiring. The entire film was inspiring and depressing at the same time. Seeing what these people of incredible intelligence and intuitiveness must do to support themselves is sad, but the way in which they do it is something to be emulated.
  • Call to action : As a geographer, I have read about and studied the idea of favelas but I have never seen one in person. This film revealed the garbage dump and the surrounding favelas in such a way that the images will never leave me. How can we in the so-called civilized world allow people to live like this? To spend their entire lives in the midst of garbage? Muniz sold his original art for $250,000 and then donated the money to his subjects, changing their lives.

Muniz used the pickers themselves to create the art .. portraits of the people recreated in giant size drawings and illustrated with recyclable materials by the subjects themselves. The drama and the inspiration of creating is clearly seen in the reaction of the people to the art. One said, "It changed a lot of things for me. I don't see myself in the trash anymore.”

This film is worth watching. It is emotionally moving in so many ways. Getting to know the characters, the subject of Muniz’s art, was probably the best part of viewing it. But another great part is watching the art come together and the attitudes of the subjects rise with regard to themselves.