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Rated 2.98 stars
by 272 people

ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Where To Look Among the Garbage and the Flowers
by Donald Levit

One of seven people everywhere lives in a slum, and in Waste Land it almost appears that most of them live around and work in Jardim [Garden] Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill-garbage dump, on Rio’s outskirts. The documentary’s ninety minutes traces the return journey of Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz to the country of his birth -- poverty in rough São Paulo -- to take still-photographs and make art of the dump and its catadores, “pickers.” This three-year project arose from the suggestion of Fabio Ghivelder, director of the artist’s studio in Rio, in line with Muniz’ developing aim “to change the lives of people.”

As a central half-dozen pickers and organizers warm to the idea and become involved, their lives do indeed change. Only touched on, but much food for thought, in a discussion among Muniz, his wife Janaína and Ghivelder, is whether an outsider has the right to expose others to such change and whether it is beneficial or harmful to them once that outside impetus is gone and, again on their own, those affected must return to what was or else start anew in permanent remaking of their world.

Director Lucy Walker’s -- Karen Harley and João Jardim are listed as co-directors -- previous Countdown to Zero was impassioned one-sided advocacy journalism even without narrational voice as such. Here she is much better at keeping her, or any, particular point of view at a distance, thus allowing those in front of the camera (as opposed to the one behind it) to tell their own stories. The result is charming, for these poor, presumably poorly educated subjects are open, wise, and captivating. Although briefly flanked by Brazil’s Tonight Show-format Programa do Jo, the whole nevertheless avoids docu-disease talking head-itis. Muniz and the chosen six once identified -- viewer-friendly titles, by the way -- are not posed or interviewed but natural and speaking their hearts. Alongside tears and regrets, are pride -- the women refer to weaker sisters turned to drugs or prostitution at Copacabana -- and shrewd, insightful humor.

With Vik and Fabio and crew getting oriented (and semi-used to the smell), the camera-eye introduces us to this world to which seventy percent of the megalopolis’ refuse is trucked in. First from aerial views for an idea of extensiveness, then on the ground, a deceptive colorful technical fascination is the initial response. Patterns emerge though not the abstract pretty swirls of industrial slough of Manufactured Landscapes, as scavenger birds swarm, earthmovers rearrange mountains of unspeakable waste, and men and women comb the mass for sellable material.

Faces and personalities come into focus, foremost but not predominant that of married father Tião Santos, articulate and a born organizer, a chaser of “impossible dreams” and moving force behind the Association of Collectors of the Metropolitan Landfill of Jardim Gramacho, a union that through hunger strikes got roads in the favelas, training centers, schools and medical clinics. His right hand, Zumbi, rescues trashed books like The Da Vinci Code, The Art of War, The Prince to furbish a library, and bicycling Valter Dos Santos preaches a gospel of pride and ecology, famously recycling every single can because “ninety-nine is not a hundred.”

Pretty, flirty Isis sobs over her recent breakup with a married lorry driver. At the landfill for eleven of her eighteen years, Suelem goes home whenever possible to visit her two babies (a good, new relationship promises a third) and shows the cameramen around the shanty, excluding the “nasty” bathroom. Former restaurant cook Inmã boils stews for all her companions from edible discarded meat and scraps.

The project MO of the artist, who on other occasions also uses garbage/found objects as a medium, is to photograph individuals with few props, enlarge the shots to huge black-and-white on the floor of a warehouse-studio, and from suspended walkways superintend the arrangement of recyclables on the blow-ups, to finally reproduce the whole in frameable size. The poses and embellishments are modeled after famous paintings, the women as madonnas, mothers or maids and, for example, Tião in an abandoned bathtub as revolutionary Jacques-Louis David’s (Death of) Marat.

Only Tião gets to accompany the artist to London’s Phillips de Pury & Company, where names like Gavin Turk, Basquiat and Damien Hirst are bandied about and “Portraits of Garbage” fetches $250,000 at auction. Dressed in their finery, the others get to see themselves, too -- “Look! It’s me!”-- at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art, and Muniz presents each with a copy and drills holes to hang them. “I couldn’t go,” reflects Inmã, “but Vik tells me it traveled to Japan and China.”

Among the less publicized, less recognizable titles showing in New York’s Museum of Modern Art “The Contenders 2010,” Waste Land deserves its Amnesty International and Sundance awards and its Oscar short-listing. A feel-good rarity in that it descends neither to cuteness nor sentimentality, it does not editorialize, either, but lets subject, and subjects, show us what it’s all about. 

(Released by Arthouse Films; not rated by MPAA.)

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