REVIEW: Waste Land Tracks an Artist Who Turns Trash -- and Trashpickers -- into Art
Midway through Waste Land, Lucy Walker's tightrope inquiry into the confluence of art, altruism and exploitation, Brazilian artist Vik Muniz notes that his hometown of Sao Paolo is "not a pretty place, unless you look from very far away." He's standing over a vista of the teeming city of 20 million when he says that -- the meaning is quite literal -- and yet it resonates across Muniz's attempt to turn the largest garbage dump in the world, and its workers, into an elite modern art project.
Is Sao Paolo only beautiful from far away because it removes the possibility of reckoning with the city's blighted, its poor, its human? At the beginning of the film, when Muniz is in New York (where he moved as a young man, after getting some money for being shot in the butt at random in Sao Paolo) and the idea is being hatched, his speculations about Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Gramacho and its workers are ugly indeed. He imagines the people hired to pick the recyclable materials from the mountains of trash unloaded at the site every day (and really, Brazil, get with it; go green) as exiles from society, the lowest of the low -- drug users, criminals, depressive, homeless wretches. "I think we're able to change the lives of these people," he says excitedly, and the concerned viewer sucks in her breath. In the power of transformation's favor, it took only twenty years in the U.S. for Muniz to adopt a savior complex and a patronizing attitude toward the underprivileged, of which he was once among the least.
Up close, as it turns out, those people are perfectly lovely. A dump is a dump, but it's immediately clear that these are working people who are making the best of their options and who have built a shared camaraderie out of that determination. Muniz is almost touchingly out of his element, and is not at all sure just what he wants the project to be; the process of watching it take shape is loaded with tetchy, telling moments. Meeting Tiaõ, the formidable and radiantly charismatic worker who organized his colleagues into an association that demands certain rights, Muniz informs him that he is the Brazilian artist who sells the most overseas. "Congratulations, man," Tiaõ says, as though he's just heard the price of tea in China. Muniz is speaking the language of his adopted land -- trying to sell himself and his idea. The workers just want to know what his deal is, you know, as a human being.
As he begins taking candid shots of various workers -- some of whom respond like shy children, then quickly open up and start posing -- an idea takes shape. Walker sketches the lives of several of the workers and personalities emerge along with layers of interest and aesthetic complication: We watch them pick plastic and paper from the landfill, which is bundled and weighed for cash; Muniz stalks the activity with his camera, picking from it what he needs, in thrall, perhaps, to what George Eliot called "that softening influence of the fine arts which makes other people's hardships picturesque." Walker circles them both, trying to extract a story from the melée.
Muniz, who has worked with materials like sugar, peanut butter and street sweepings in previous projects, decides to make large-scale portraits of the workers -- some based on famous works of art -- using garbage from the dump. The subjects are enlisted to do the arrangement as Muniz directs them with a laser pointer from above. "The camera is a kind of license," Diane Arbus said. "A lot of people, they want to be paid that much attention and that's a reasonable kind of attention to be paid." Muniz and his crew eventually grapple with the consequences of the amount and the quality of the attention they are paying their subjects, who seem to bloom in the studio setting. "I had the impression they were happy there," Muniz's partner says, meaning the dump, and his wife expresses concern that they are interfering with lives they cannot change and giving false hope. For his part Muniz is defiant: "It's really hard for me to imagine doing damage to them," he says, which sounds like both a reasonable position and a supreme failure of imagination.
Walker parses herattention between the pickers, the project and life at the landfill; rather than diffuse the film's focus she layers it with various filters. I was most drawn to the scenes of the men and women at their real jobs, not their temporary ones: In one Tiaõ and his colleagues extrapolate a woman's life from the shape of her discarded shoe; "This garbage is very middle class," Tiaõ says of another stash, pulling out a Playboy and some organic waste. It's a scene that's echoed nicely when Tiaõ joins Muniz in London for the auction of a photograph of his portrait. Sitting on the floor of a gallery is a painted bronze garbage bag worth untold thousands of dollars, and Tiaõ speculates about its contents: yogurt cups, hearts of palm, maybe a cell phone box.
The site of a different kind of excess, the London art market introduces Tiaõ to the wonderful, ludicrous world of modern art. A Damien Hirst piece that consists of a medicine cabinet lined with drugs is valued at a million dollars; Tiaõ's portrait sells for fifty thousand, money that will help the association his runs in Rio. Even after the sale, Tiaõ is skeptical of modern art, a position Muniz helps budge only when he points out how context and narrative inform what might seem meaningless to the naked eye. Back on neutral ground, however, even Muniz relents: "The crazy people are the ones who buy it." It's a stroke of honesty and wit in a film that fights for its level head, where sentimentality and self-congratulation might have easily tipped the balance against a small but startlingly affecting story.