Film Review: Waste Land
photo credit: Marat In The Bath
The Christ the Redeemer statue holds its arms open in an embrace to the mega-polis of Rio, and as it does so, it also turns its back on the world’s largest landfill site, Jardim Gramacho. Hardly shocking either, that upper class Brazilan society also ignores the reality and consequences of its cult of disposable consumerism. Nominated for an Oscar, new documentary Wasteland by Alice Walker goes some way to correcting this slight. Throwing light on the work of artist Vik Muniz, who creates portraits from discarded recyclable materials, it tells the story of a group of catadores or pickers, who’s lives are transformed temporarily through involvement with an art project.
The film opens up with an explanation of Muniz and his work, highlighting his own background as a someone that spent his time tidying skips out side an NYC super market and now wants to highlight the poverty of his native city in Brazil. Muniz articulates his own take on class at one point in the film, seeing it as a relationship of misunderstanding and judgement between sets of individuals. And it’s that sort of “if only we all got to know each other” ethos that afflicts the film, and his whole project.
Upon entering the dump, the artist and his helpers begin seeking subjects to take part in a series of portraits. As they gather on mounds of rubbish waiting for a dump truck to unload, one of them shouts back “they are filming for Animal Planet.” An uncomfortable moment that signals at some of the exploitative attributes of the artists whole idea if it goes off wrongly. Earlier on, Muniz unconsciously outlines his own utter snobbery, expecting to find drug addicts, diseased prostitutes and the absolutely morally destitute working at the dump – instead he finds auto-didactics, union organisers and families struggling to hold themselves together despite economic ruin.
As a whole there’s a head long rush into uncovering the personal lives of these rubbish pickers, and this sidelines what could have been a much more interesting over view of the social movement that they have developed as a mode of survival and dignity on the edges of Brazilian society. Calling itself the Association for the Pickers of Jardim Gramacho, the pickers have built libraries from paper backs found on the dumps, they campaign for proper recycling in Rio and for recognition of their contribution to the environment. One of them, Jacques-Louis David for Tiaõ, the co-op’s charismatic leader, wants to be photographed as the French revolutionary Marat, reenacting in a bathtub found in the dump a famous portrait of his death. The film never enters the maze of politics in the wasteland, never asking why the French revolutionary Marat is an icon to one picker?
The huge portraits and the scenes of the pickers putting them together are wonderful. As is much of the photography throughout the film, bringing to mind nothing so much as Manufactured Landscapes another sweeping epic that also looks at humanity’s scarification of the earth. Just as the film reaches the perfect ending beat, it flips back into a biography of Muniz. Revisiting as it does, his home life in a lower middle class suburb, some of the driving force behind his rubbish project makes itself known but largely, the segment chiefly serves to massage his ego and assuage his social conscience – interrupting the flow of the film with what should have been left as a DVD extra.
Sure, one of the final pieces sells off for a few tens of thousands of US dollars, much of which was ploughed back into the pickers association -but you are sort of left wondering what share of the DVD sales royalties will return to them after the films Oscar nomination. At the end Tiao appears on Brazil’s Tonight Show-format Programa do Jo, wearing a shirt with the slogan “solidarity above all” writ large across the front. Again the politics of the pickers forces its way on screen, despite the efforts of a film that does its best to push them aside for a piece thats more about Muniz than the subjects he works with and the global social movement they are contributing to.
- VIDEOCRACY: Broadcasting Control over the Italian Psyche
- Where Were You in Whenever?
- Treme: Won’t Bow, Don’t Know How.
- Vidiot : DCTV Schedule
- Review Of Diarmuid Ferriter’s Limiting Liberty