May 1, 2011


There is that classic saying that goes, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”  For famed artist Vik Muniz, it’s “One man’s trash is another man’s art.”  World renowned and applauded for his art, Muniz has spent the past couple of decades creating mesmerizing works of art by only using various pieces of trash and garbage as his tools.  Director Lucy Walker, along with co-directors João Jardim and Karen Harley, followed Muniz for three years as he created his most ambitious work of art to date and what resulted was the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Waste Land. You can read my review after the jump.

Opening with the immediately charming Muniz while he has a smile on his face as he explains how he became an artist all thanks to being shot, Waste Land starts on an upbeat note as we get to know Muniz and what makes his art so special and unique.  We begin to follow Muniz as he hatches the idea of his latest art project, which will involve traveling to the world’s largest garbage dump located on the outskirts of Rio de Janero, where he will then create portraits of the people who work there picking up and then selling any recyclable trash that they are able to find.

wasteland-dvd-coverAs you can imagine, Waste Land has the potential of being a documentary that is filled with sad music being played over depressing images of poor people picking up trash.  However, Waste Land isn’t really that at all.  Upon arriving at the garbage dump, which is actually formally called Jardin Gramacho, Muniz is shocked to find that all of the people there working at the dump are actually doing it while joking with each other.  They are quick to accept him and within minutes they are cracking jokes with Muniz as well.

Waste Land earns its sentimentality and emotional moments by choosing to not play the “Hey, guys.  Isn’t this really sad?” card at all.  Instead, it earns those emotional moments by actually choosing to profile all of these interesting people that Muniz begins to form friendships with by actually profiling them as people, and not as objects for us to just feel bad about.  Their cheerful attitude is infective and you genuinely start to care about them because they feel like they are just normal people who are just trying to get by with as much of a good attitude as they can muster up.

We begin to get know all of these characters more and more as Muniz commences to work on his portraits of them.  Muniz brings them out of the dump and hires them as his assistants.  Soon enough, they are all working as a team to create these massive works of art that will be made up entirely of trash that they found from the dump that they themselves work in.  Muniz master plan is to then sell these finished portraits so that he can give any money that he earns from them back to the community.  Waste Land then becomes a documentary that chronicles this whole process as we continue to wish more and more for a happy ending for all of the people that we get to know during the film.

Sure, there are some very depressing and sad moments during the film, but their rawness and Walker’s refusal to play up any sadness makes them more touching than sad.  The true emotional moments don’t come from seeing how these people live or how much their jobs suck, though.  The true emotional punch that the film carries is from seeing how Muniz’s art touches the people that he has chosen to “paint”.  Their tears of joy as they see the final product for the first time are beautiful to watch and you have to be dead inside to not feel anything as you see these moments or the films final minutes play out.

wasteland-02One of the most interesting aspects that the film also explores is how Muniz might be doing more damage than he thinks he might be by giving all of these people a lifestyle and job that they will no longer have once he leaves.  Muniz, his assistant, and his wife debating about whether they should take the group with them to a London art auction is easily the film’s most fascinating scene as we get to see what the hidden dangers might be within Muniz’s good intentions.  Sadly, the film barely touches on this tangent before dropping it entirely, but it’s admirable that Walker chooses to be self conscious about what her film and Muniz’s art might implicate to this small community.

It’s hard to really find fault in a film that chooses to look at such a sad subject in a sincere and honest manner, but there are a few things that feel out of place with the rest of the film.  One scene, in particular, shows all of the trash pickers going through the latest batch of garbage in a hurry as a Lynchianesque ominous score begins to play.  The scene all of a sudden begins to have an almost unsettling and disturbing vibe to it that feels completely tacked on as if to make us feel more impacted by what we are watching.  The scene ultimately ends up feeling completely out of tone and sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the natural tone found running through the rest of the film.

There is also a scene where two of the trash pickers have a discussion about Machiavelli and the philosophy of Nietchze that I can’t help but also have issues with.  The entire scene feels as if the directors are trying too hard to make us see that these people aren’t uneducated and that we shouldn’t be quick to judge them.  The intention may be goodhearted, but it feels forced and a little bit too on the nose.  Again, these are just minor nitpicks in an otherwise very solid documentary that is hard to hate.wasteland-01

The DVD contains two special features that continue to explore Muniz and the lives of this community of trash pickers.  In one feature, Beyond Gramacho, we get interviews with people who were involved in the film explaining their thoughts before making the film, while making it, and what has happened to them after it.  The second special feature, An Untold Story, shows us the profile of one of Muniz’s subjects whose segment ended up having to be edited out due to filmmaking purposes.  It’s this deleted footage that is easily the most interesting watch between the two since we get to see more of this close knit community through yet another pair of eyes.

Waste Land ends up being a documentary that works as well as it does because of what it chooses not to be.  It’s admirable that the film has such a restraint behind its filmmaking and the film’s uplifting tone along with the filmmaker’s obvious love towards the power that art can have over people are both very affective and help make the film reach some very emotional and powerful highs.  After watching it, it’s easy to see why the film got rightfully nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Academy Awards.

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