In one of the several memorable sequences in ‘Waste Land’ world famous artist Vik Muniz teaches his audiences about looking at art in a museum. People tend, he tells them, to get closer to the painting, then farther, then closer, then farther again, several times. When they are far away they get the overall idea of the art work. When they get close they try to understand how it is made. From far they see the idea. From close they see the matter.




The great idea of the documentary directed by Lucy Walker is to describe the process of creation in which the subjects are the Brazilian garbage pickers, called catadores while the matter is the recyclable materials extracted from the huge garbage ground called Jardim Gramacho, which gathers most of the waste of the huge metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. However this is only the inner circle of this smart film, as the first part describes the search that triggers the project in which the artist explores the space of the big garbage dump. At first it looks like one of its work, a square on the map, getting closer men seem to be visible at the dimensions of ants, then zooming in we discover a full human landscape composed of people who may be working physically in garbage but they do it with pride and dignity and a sense of purpose of their work and its benefits for the overall good of the community. The human dimensions of the characters discovered by Muniz are best material on which relies the quality of his art and the quality of the film director Walker made about the process of creating his art.

(video source lastmintrailers)

‘Waste Land’ is beautifully filmed, the characters are well chosen, and one can say that garbage never looked so beautiful and full of colors and the garbage people never looked so clean and sexy as in this film. There is one more ethical question that needs to be asked about the realization of this documentary. By picking a few of the people of Jardim Gramacho and making them for a few months part of the artistic creation process, Muniz, Walker and their teams took them out of the social medium they were living in and exposed them not only to art, to better work conditions, but also to the broader world living at a very different pace, social relations and living standards. Even as the money raised from the selling of the works returned to the people involved and to the social activities in the ‘garbage garden’ I could not ask whether the human involved will be able to get back to their previous work, or even as they use some of the cash earned for the participation in the project will they be able to overcome the short glimpse they witnessed of the world of glamor of art trade? Although Walker’s documentary tried to give a rather positive answer to this question I could not avoid a slight suspicion of manipulation, or at least of a self-righteous perspective of the facts as they were presented. But maybe I am just over-concerned, or maybe Muniz and Walker are right in their approach, and the path to help the under-privileged of this world starts not with 99 or 100 of the lucky ones enrolling to help, but with the first of the 100.