Finding beauty among trash and its sifters

Artist Vik Muniz (foreground) photographs "Tiao," one of the pickers who search a Rio landfill, seeking recyclables to redeem for cash.
Artist Vik Muniz (foreground) photographs "Tiao," one of the pickers who search a Rio landfill, seeking recyclables to redeem for cash.
Posted: December 03, 2010

It's not a very good title, Waste Land - this isn't a bleak film, at all - but just about everything else in Lucy Walker's documentary works, and illuminates.

Traveling with the Brooklyn-based, Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz - an energetic figure whose large-scale photography and portraiture incorporates nontraditional materials (food, wire, metal) - Walker sets down with her small crew in Rio de Janeiro and watches as a truly transformative project takes shape.

Muniz has come to Jardim Gramacho, one of the largest landfills in the world, to shoot portraits of the catadores - pickers who sift through the towering hills of detritus, looking for recyclables to redeem for cash. Like those portrayed in Millais' famous painting, The Gleaners, these women and men - and children - stoop over the land(fill), gathering, collecting, reaping a harvest.

That it is not a field of wheat and grain, but a mountainscape of toxic trash, speaks to the changes that have taken place in the last two centuries. On one level, Waste Land is a film about our planet and how humankind continues to abuse it.

But in more insightful, inspiring ways, Waste Land - one of 15 documentaries recently short-listed for Academy Awards consideration - is about what happens when an artist invites his subjects into a truly collaborative relationship. There's a cook who sells food at the dump. There's a young woman who has worked collecting garbage since she was 7. A spry, leathery old gent reflects on his past with wisdom and humor. Another man recounts with pride how he started a library for the pickers from the discarded books retrieved from the rubble.

Taking portraits of six of these catadores and blowing them up on a massive scale in a hangar-size studio, Muniz then reworks the projected images, augmenting the portraits with garbage and debris culled from the dump.

And then he takes large-format photographs of these giant portrait/assemblage pieces. And sells them in a London gallery, with the proceeds going back to the catadores.

Muniz finds the beauty in the garbage. But more importantly, he finds the beauty in the people who live and work in it and around it.

And Walker records Muniz, and records the pickers as they go through their arduous routines - and as they go to work with, and for, the world-renowned artist. They talk about their lives, their hardships and losses, but also the sense of dignity and purpose they've found. One man, Tiao, has organized the pickers - to give them better wages, better conditions, legitimacy.

Walker's film, with an effective score by Moby, presents eerie montages of the workers as they scavenge the landfill. The images are surreal, and strange, but the people doing the scavenging, the culling, become wonderfully real and hardly strange at all.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/.

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