Sunlight Shining Through Cloud

Movie Review: Waste Land

Posted on: March 20, 2011

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From the outset, Waste Land has three things going against it:

  1. It’s a documentary
  2. It features an artiste who just might be a self-aggrandizing clown
  3. It’s about garbage

From the outset, Waste Land has three things going for it:

  1. It won Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, 2010
  2. It won several awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, 2010
  3. It was nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Feature Documentary category, 2011

It just shows to go ya that I can sometimes be wrong.

It seems, at first, that humility is not his strongest trait. Vik Muniz is a visual artist of world renown.  He throws himself and his considerable energies into the next project: the re-creation of famous paintings.  He will do this using people doing their jobs.  The catch is that the materials his subjects work with are also the materials with which his art will be created.

Just to make things more challenging for the viewer, Muniz selects the country of his birth, Brazil, as the location…meaning that we have to switch quite often between English and Portuguese.  And when the latter is spoken, we have to read those annoying subtitles.

About ten minutes into Waste Land, we begin to see almost another movie entirely; this one’s about people who work in one of the world’s largest dumps.  They’re called “Pickers,” and their job is to extract recyclables from the fetid waste being dumped day and night.  The Pickers – dozens of them – are at the backs of the trucks as garbage is tipped nearly on top of them.  The work is obviously hazardous, back-breaking, and pays dirt-for-wages.  But the work is done earnestly, and is extremely well-organized.

We begin to meet some of the individuals who do this work.  We find that they carry themselves with dignity and pride.  There’s nothing bad about what they do; they could, after all, be dealing drugs or prostituting themselves.  No, picking from the garbage is fine work.  There’s no shame here.

The concept of Muniz’ art must be explained to his subjects only in brief; they don’t need a drawn-out dissertation; let’s just do it.

What they do is pose for a photograph: a lot of the subject’s own character built into each shot.  Then the images are projected onto the floor of a large warehouse.  There, recycled garbage is carefully selected and placed to capture just the right shapes, colors, textures and shadings.  It’s really quite something to see how this all comes together.  The resulting images are astonishingly beautiful.

A specialized photograph is taken of these works of art, then framed and taken to Sotheby’s for auction to the élite.

There’s a scene in which Muniz and his team discuss the ethics of taking the subjects to London for the auction.  None of them have ever been on a plane, much less out of Brazil.  That debate isn’t shown till its end.  The subjects do go to London and it is there that we see how the experience impacts the lives of the Pickers.

When the credits rolled, I found that I was holding my breath…I feared that breathing would allow a deeply meaningful moment to pass.  I feared that breathing would open a floodgate of tears.

Waste Land is an affirmation of life.  It shows that you don’t have to achieve some kind of status in order to be a meaningful contributor to the world.  It shows the souls of those who seem the unlikeliest of all…to have great beauty.

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Waste Land is still showing at a small handful of art houses.  It can also be rented or streamed from Netflix, and purchased from Amazon.com.

View the trailer here.

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