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Waste Land

Sunday, 13 March, 2011, 12:00am

Clarence Tsui

Waste Land
Directors: Lucy Walker, Joao Jardim and Karen Harley

Set mostly in a gigantic Rio de Janeiro landfill, this Oscar-nominated documentary zeroes in on a project involving Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and the cantadores – down-and-out men and women who make a meagre living by finding reusable material among the rubbish.

It follows the collective’s efforts to create art from waste, with Muniz taking photographs of the vast portraits that several pickers assembled using the junk they collected on the site. Waste Land is a warning tale about the importance of recycling, and also a feel-good story about how these marginalised toilers re-evaluate and re-navigate their lives through their encounter with help from outside.

The film certainly works on both levels. The former theme is served well by the filmmakers’ vivid depiction of the sprawling mayhem of Jardim Gramacho, the world’s biggest landfill, and the pickers’ tales of locating usable items. Meanwhile, it’s hard not to be moved by the sight of the labourers’ glee and satisfaction in having participated in the creation of an artwork and seeing their own faces immortalised in those portraits – one of them, unionist Tiao Santos, went to New York to see his portrait sold in an auction.

The cantadores‘ joy, however, belies the one lingering doubt of the whole scenario. Hailing from a poor background he might be, but is Muniz engaging with the pickers on an equal footing? The key image which feeds into this debate is the sight of him standing on a balcony and directing his collaborators to move junk about: he knows the masterplan while they don’t.

Over the end credits, the documentary did state that several of the pickers left the landfill and reinvented themselves with the money they received from their work.

The film also shows, briefly, a debate between Muniz and his then wife about the implications this 15 minutes of fame might have for the pickers. (Muniz’s view is that whatever it brings, it’s still better than the lives they were leading at the Jardim. Since then, he has been patron of a fund for the pickers.)

Revisiting the cantadores now, nearly three years after the film’s inception, would probably provide the answer. As the documentary didn’t touch on that – and none of the pickers were at the Oscars – Waste Land remains an admirably uplifting tale about the oppressed on the rise, albeit briefly.

Extras: none.




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