The transformative power of art has been a recurring theme in films and literature for centuries, but rarely has the subject been illustrated so precisely as it is in the inspiring, illuminating documentary Waste Land. Director Lucy Walker (Countdown to Zero), working in conjunction with Joao Jardim and Karen Harley, uses a fly-on-the-wall approach to follow Vik Muniz, a celebrated New York artist whose work consists primarily of photographs and portraits made of unusual materials (sugar, toys, rubbish). Muniz travels to his native Brazil with the idea of doing a project based on catadores, or pickers — the hundreds of workers who daily sift through the enormous Jardim Garmacho in Rio, the largest trash heap and landfill in the world.
The pickers search for specific items — recyclable goods, scrap metal, even unspoiled foods — which they then sell to the vendors who employ them. Their profession may be among the saddest imaginable, but Muniz immediately responds to the personalities of the workers, who are proud of the jobs they have chosen over much more lucrative endeavors such as prostitution and drug dealing. Their pluck and pride inspires Muniz to create an art project in which he photographs certain catadores, then surrounds their portraits with junk from the heap. The attention the artist’s work brings to the workers sparks a change: Suddenly, they can see a world beyond the one they know, and they are hungry to explore it.
One of the five films nominated this year for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar, Waste Land accomplishes two things at once: It shows us how artists find ideas and concepts for their work from the most unlikely sources, and it demonstrates the power of art to spark curiosity and cultural awareness in even the poorest, most underprivileged people. Near the end of the movie, when one of Muniz’s subjects tears up during the unveiling of the new artworks, the scene captures what so many fictional films have tried — and often failed — to show: Imagination and creativity may not be an essential need for survival, like food and water, but they enrich life and make us connect to the world, in ways so profound they are nearly indescribable.
With: Vik Muniz, Sebastian Carlos dos Santos, Fabio Ghivelder, Isis Rodrigues Garros.
Director: Lucy Walker.
Co-directors: Joao Jardim, Karen Harley.
Producers: Angus Aynsley, Hank Levine.
An Arthouse Films. Running time: 98 minutes. In English and Portuguese with English subtitles. In Miami-Dade only: Cosford Cinema.