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Waste Land

Lucy Walker directs a great documentary out of Vik Muniz making art out of garbage

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Picker organizer Tiao as Marat in Waste Land.

Waste Land

Directed by Lucy Walker

Opens Dec. 3 at the Charles Theater

The Jardim Gramacho landfill sits at the very northeastern end of Duque de Caxias, a municipality about 20 km due north of Rio de Janeiro. According to the irrepressibly moving documentary Waste Land, it receives more trash by volume per day than any other landfill in the world: 7,000 tons of garbage, or about 70 percent of the trash produced by the greater Rio de Janeiro areas, where more than 15 million people live. Every day full garbage trucks head to Jardim Gramacho—"Gramacho garden"—to dump their loads, and every day roughly 3,000 male and female catadores come to pick through the detritus to gather recyclable materials to sell. The Gramacho was established in 1970, and some of these "pickers" have been doing it for decades. Some end up there when other family members lose their jobs; women end up there because it's not prostituting themselves on the Copacabana. One woman in Waste Land says she can make about $20-$25 per day.

In 2007, Brazilian-born, New York-based contemporary artist Vik Muniz traveled to Jardim Gramacho to begin a new project. He wanted to "be able to change the lives of a group of people with the same material that they deal with every day." Before assuming bleeding-heart MFA motives behind that impulse, though, remember that Muniz was born and raised working class in São Paulo, and knows the socio-economic reality of Brazil's working poor. As Waste Land reminds its audience with video footage of a 1998 Muniz interview, his journey to America was in part financed by the money he was given not to press charges after he was shot in the leg breaking up a fight. Now an internationally acclaimed artist, since the late 1990s Muniz has been investigating ways to give his visual art practice a social edge. And Waste Land is a powerful argument that art can not only change people's lives, but does so in unimaginable ways.

The documentary follows Muniz from his Brooklyn, N.Y., studio to the Jardim Gramacho, catching his first encounters with the landfill—no still does any justice to its immensity, and the muddy road into its gate feels like a road to another country—and the pickers, talking with and photographing them along with project partner. Muniz's idea is similar to many of his photography portrait projects: to take digital photos of the pickers, blow them up to yard size and project them onto a surface, use debris gathered from the landfill to shade and color in the portrait, and then re-photograph that image. He wants to use the recyclable goods the pickers gather to create portraits of them.

Just how this endeavor plays out is what makes Waste Land so engrossing. Muniz wants to change lives, but his is going to be affected as well. Director Lucy Walker, who has quickly emerged as one of the more insightfully nuanced documentarians working today (see also: her 2002 Devil's Playground portrait of Amish teens during rumspringa or her 2006 Blindsight about six blind Tibetan teens' attempt to climb the 23,000-foot north side of Mount Everest), is refreshingly free of condescension, for her subjects and her audience, and her cameras (she shares directing credits with João Jardim and Karen Harley) neither cherish nor make precious Muniz's sincerity or the pickers' working-class status. (The pickers are, in fact, Muniz's intellectual and cultural equals from the very start: The funniest line in the entire movie comes from one picker going through a freshly dumped pile of garbage and telling a co-worker, "This trash is totally middle class.") Walker is as interested in the cultural dynamic at work when an artist participates and interacts with a community as she is in what comes out of that contact, and Waste Land's emotive strength is a testament to the filmmakers' ability to allow this intimate journey to speak to big-picture ideas.

To explain more wouldn't dilute the movie's effect, but it articulates its ideas visually much more effectively than prosaic words can. And Walker and cinematographer Dudu Miranda work a minor miracle here by getting you to reconsider garbage as the movie unfolds. By no means is the Jardim Gramacho a beautiful place—Waste Land's scenes of the trucks dumping loads of trash into the landfill's ever-expanding ocean of debris have an almost visceral effect, as you begin to start imagining what the place has to smell like. Yet even in this alien landscape, Waste Land shows that beauty is never outside the reach of people who never stop believing in themselves.