Waste Land a Film about Beauty and Hope

Waste Land (2010)

Directed by Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, and Joao Jardim

O2 Films, 99 mins. in English and Portuguese

* * * *

On the surface, this is a film most Americans would avoid--it’s a documentary with no star power, its subject matter sounds depressing, and part of the dialogue is in Portuguese and is subtitled. The film follows the lives of Rio de Janeiro dwellers from the favelas, the drug-infested, crime-ridden slums that climb Rio’s hillside like a plague of kudzu. The subjects in this film make their living in a stomach-churning fashion: they hang out in the Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill. There they spend twelve-hour days sifting through the garbage in search of materials they can sell. In a good week they earn the equivalent of about $25, but every day they prevent several tons of material from being plowed under.

This may sound like a huge turnoff, but it’s actually one of the most uplifting films I’ve seen in quite some time. It centers on a project spearheaded by Brazilian-born, New York-based artist Vik Muniz. If the name doesn’t ring bells for you, rest assured that they peal quite a few at art auctions; Muniz is among the world’s most successful living artists. He’s done well, in fact, that he decides to return to Brazil for two years, hang out in the dangerous favela, make art with the pickers, and donate any profits that result. He finds many things he did not expect, including a pickers’ association led by the idealistic Tiao, as gentle and sweet a young man who has ever graced the planet. None of Muniz’s subjects are what you’d anticipate. There is Zumbi, the organic intellectual who reads Machiavelli books he finds amidst the trash; Irma, the landfill cook, who looks like a Walker Evans photo; Suelem, 19, and the mother of two, who ends up in a Dorothea Lange-like tableau; the strong-willed and striking Magna; fashion-conscious Isis; and Valter, who has spent decades on the trash heap, but is as cheerful as a character conjured by Dickens. And don’t call them trash pickers; they definitely see themselves as engaged in grassroots recycling.

Muniz and his team worry about and debate whether their presence can help, or if they’re just another link in a chain of broken dreams. I’m not spoiling a thing to say that Muniz orchestrates stunning art and that lives are transformed. Orchestrates is the correct word; Muniz is not necessarily the center of the art that ensues. This is a moving portrait of hope amidst conditions that would induce despair in most people. It is also one of the beauty to be found in an unlikely place. In sum, it’s a film that might make you believe that humankind might just manage to save itself. It’s now available on video, and Netflix subscribers can view it as an instant download. I’d recommend you do so now and move it to the top of your queue.

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