Saddled with an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary, Waste Land has carried the burden of heightened expectations well by living up to its credentials, its inclusion in this year’s Oscars proving a fitting reflection of the film’s achievements.
Over a period of three years, artist, illusionist and innovator, Vik Muniz, collaborated with director Lucy Walker on a project about Jardim Gramacho, a Rio de Janeiro landfill site which has evolved to become one of the largest in the world, consuming over 70% of all of the city’s waste. Like seagulls stalking a trawler, local inhabitants from the surrounding areas converge on the enormous mountains of rubbish every day and proceed to sift through it for recyclable items, managing to collect just enough materials to make a living.
Originally setting out with only an inkling of what direction the project would take, Muniz inevitably comes to the conclusion that the most fascinating aspect of the dump is the people who work there. The artistic process underlying this choice is physically illustrated by a focal shift in Muniz’s background research; his initial photographs capturing the site in landscape form from afar before he starts to interact with the locals and more intimate portraits emerge. Eventually the decision is made to reconstruct his photographs on a magnified scale with the materials his subjects would normally pick and in turn reproduce those images on celluloid. A socially conscious individual, Muniz’s ultimate goal is to channel the entire profits into the local community, resulting in an exciting auction house finale.
The project’s rather obvious and conceptually simplistic idea should not conceal the numerous merits of the film; the beauty of what he and the locals creates, the insights into the artist’s methods and the pleasure of watching the recyclers emerge with a greater dignity. Waste Land and Muniz both acknowledge the redemptive and mind-expanding power of art without patronising or exploiting the people he involves in the project making the film both an aesthetic and emotional pleasure.