06/15/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Waste Land -- Recycling as an Artistic Statement

Crossposted with www.theGreenGrok.

If the documentary Waste Land shows up in your hometown, see it.

The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival was held last weekend in Durham. For aficionados of the documentary "genre," being in Durham during the fest must be like being a kid in a candy shop. Over the course of four days, more than 100 documentaries are screened -- most of them in the city's historic Carolina Theater. Though I was able to catch only four of them, all were excellent.

2010-04-15-08_Magna_portrait_WasteLandLOW.jpg Lucy Walker's Waste Land blew me away -- not just its moving depiction of art and humanity but the broader story of the garbage piles we generate, what we do with them, and the folks at the bottom of the heap who eek out an existence from the refuse.
My favorite was Waste Land, produced by Angus Aynsley and Hank Levine, and directed by Lucy Walker, whose inspiration for the movie was in part sparked by a visit to New York City's mammoth Fresh Kills, formerly the world's largest landfill. The film documents a two- to three-year effort to make art out of garbage -- that's right garbage and art.

At the story's center is Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, who likes to use "stuff" to create art.

At the beginning of Waste Land we learn that Muniz, originally from Sao Paulo and now living in Brooklyn, is about to embark on his new project: he will move to Jardim Gramacho, an outpost of Rio de Janeiro that's home to drug dealers, squalor, widespread poverty, and the world's largest landfill. His objective: to construct a new body of work -- from the dump.

But Muniz's artistic journey turns out to be about a lot more than art -- it also becomes about the workers he meets at the landfill: the pickers.

In addition to the truck drivers dumping the refuse and myriad birds scavenging through it, the landfill is both stomping ground and workplace for a multitude of wanderers who sift through the rubbish to pick material for recycling.

On the set of Lucy Walker's WASTE LAND

Magna De Franca Santos (center), featured in Lucy Walker's documentary Waste Land (see photo above), fell on hard times when her husband lost his job. Her fellow bus passengers may turn their noses up at her, but she tells them at least she's not turning tricks on Copacabana. Pictured here with a fellow picker (l) and the artist Vik Muniz (r), who describes Rio de Janeiro as St. Tropez surrounded by Mogadishu.

The pickers live desperate lives, and yet they're articulate, intelligent, often cheerful and they have hopes and dreams much like the rest of us. Many once lived comfortable, middle-class lives, but some catastrophic event -- the death of a parent, the explosions of an abusive spouse -- led them to their job at the landfill.

We learn that the pickers have their own union and take pride in their work.

One of the pickers, Valter (see slide 10 in the film's online gallery), points out that by removing the recyclable items, they're reducing pollution and the dumping ground's burden of stuff. Even recycling just one of 100 bottles is good, because, in Valter's words, "99 is not 100." (At the end of the movie we learn that Valter died of lung cancer during the film's shooting.)

The intersection of Muniz's creativity and the pickers' participation in his creative process is fascinating; so is watching how the experience changes the lives of both Muniz and the pickers.

The underpinning backstory also comes to life: the story of the oceans of garbage societies generate, what we do with these islands of trash, and the folks literally at the bottom of the heap who eek out an existence from all the refuse.

As an audience member, I was blown away watching Muniz weave together garbage and people, photography and trompe l'oeil into stunning works of art. (See examples on the movie's Web site.)

I was also moved by the way Walker layered together the themes of art, human hope and striving, social justice, and the environment into a moving and memorable film. See it if you can ... mon frère.

Two notes:

  1. Waste Land won the Full Frame Audience Award and the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance.
  2. Don't mistake the "sci-fi/adventure" movie WasteLand (that's presumably "coming soon" to a theatre near you) for the documentary Waste Land.
For more, check out the trailer.