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Movie review: ‘Waste Land’

February 25, 2011
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Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary, Lucy Walker’s film follows Brazilian artist Vik Muniz as he returns to his hometown of São Paolo for a project involving two facts most of us shirk from thinking about: the incredible amounts of garbage generated by modern life and the millions of people worldwide who live and work amidst it in the giant slumtowns on the edges of megapolises. Muniz’s destination is the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho, which takes in 7,000 TONS of trash a day from São Paolo.

Yet far from being a picture of abject misery, the stunning thing about the catadores who pick through the trash searching for glass, metal, plastic and other recyclable materials is their inexplicable glowing good health and zeal for life. They show immense spirit, intelligence, curiosity and pride in their work, joking, flirting, speculating about the lives of the former owners of the items they paw through, and insisting on the importance of their role in the recycling  (not garbage) industry. There’s a union, a daycare and clinic and even efforts to start a library from the cast-off volumes scavenged by a couple of self-styled intellectuals, who read Machiavelli, Dan Brown and Sun Tzu in their spare time.

Fearlessly climbing the immense, shifting, slipping landscape of garbage, the catadores must be ever-vigilant lest they lose their footing, sink into a morass, or become drowned by the next deluge of trash. It’s as dangerous and filthy as you imagine, in a chaotic, loud, hectic and definitely not OSHA-approved environment, with dozens of giant trucks and bulldozers rumbling around and cawing ravens overhead. I was grateful more than once that film can’t convey odor.

Muniz himself was born into a poor family and grew up in a nearby favela (slum) neighborhood. A twist of fate (he was accidentally shot in the leg by a rich person and received a large cash settlement) changed his life forever, giving him the means to move to New York, where he eventually became an artist.

Consequently, he’s one of those rare artists in the rareified world of art whose work addresses the issue of class. Now very successful on the world market, his mission with the Jardim Gramacho project is to effect some good in the lives of the catadores with whom he works. The idea he develops is to have them work on the images with him, and then give them the proceeds of the final images.

Near the film’s end, when one of the resulting portraits (of labor organizer Tiao as French revolutionary Marat in an echo of the famous David painting) is put on the auction block in London at Phillips de Prury, it raises multiple thorny questions about the intersection of the haves and have-nots, as well as of art and commerce. What is there to say when Tiao hears that one of Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinet works—which is exactly as it sounds, a standard-issue medicine cabinet filled with prescription bottles—has sold for $1.5 million, except that, surely, these are the last, decadent days of the Roman Empire?

But in the increasing gap between rich and poor, Waste Land is an important call for dialogue between the extremes.

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