There’s always a niggling feeling when you watch a film like Lucy Walker’s Waste Land (2010) that you’re going to be guilt tripped into sorting through your rubbish, essentially paying for a feature length advert on the benefits of recycling. Although it’s true that you’ll probably end up being a bit more self-conscious about quite how much you throw away each year the strange thing is that Waste Land never really tries to make you do so.
Walker’s vision for her film seems to be primarily about art, with the waste used to make it taking a backseat role. Yet the fusion between art and rubbish is hardly a new and groundbreaking concept and results in a film that is instantly flawed in its lack of originality. What shines through is the strength of the Brazilian landfill workers optimism and uplifting spirit which makes Waste Land more than worth watching.
Successful Brazilian artist Vik Muniz is tracked by Walker as he returns to his roots to visit Jardim Gramacho, the worlds largest land fill site on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. With the intention of photographing the diligent workers who collect and sell garbage to earn a living, Muniz becomes caught up in the communities spirit and enlists them to help create gigantic portraits composed entirely of rubbish. Alongside an eclectic mix of young and old, Muniz begins to see his project come together as he bids to use his eminent status to draw attention to one of the worlds most squalid regions.
Admittedly the plot does seem to follow the recipe of most ‘uplifting’ films; the workers learn from Muniz, he learns from them and everyone comes together to create and express themselves. However, rather than being as irritating as it may sound, there’s something very heart warming to it all and much of it stems from the vibrancy of those who live and work at the Jardim.
Some of the films most enjoyable moments come from the workers Muniz meets along the way, particularly an elderly man who’s vast literary knowledge comes from the books he’s dug out of the trash. It’s very easy to see why Waste Land has been billed “the Slumdog Millionaire of documentaries”, it has the same sense of wonder and excitement but more importantly there is a greater genuine humility to it that is immensely endearing.
For such a visual film the cinematography was always going to be very important and fortunately Walker doesn’t disappoint. Some shots make you want to jump on the first available flight to Rio to bask in the glorious sun and explore the exotic and rich city as if they had come straight from a tourism commercial whereas others give a much more honest feel to the poverty rife in the capital. Importantly Walker doesn’t shoot the Jardim as a disgusting pile of rubbish, she shoots it like a city, giving it the same quality that many of the workers who visit it every day feel toward it.
For all its flaws Waste Land offers a beautifully insightful look into the lives of the ‘catadores’ on the Jardim. It probably won’t win the Academy Award for ‘Best Documentary’ but it is still worth watching. Electro artist Moby’s soundtrack is an unexpected delight, melancholic and haunting, it weaves its way into the film, creating an attachment to the Jardim Gramacho that makes you strangely sad to leave it.