I have wanted to see Waste Land — Lucy Walker‘s documentary about Brooklyn-based Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and the huge trash portraits he created outside of Rio with help from local cartadores — for a while now. Somehow, I missed two or three chances to do so while the film screened in New York. Now, though, we all have another chance. Waste Land premiers on the PBS series Independent Lens on April 19th (check local listings). Or you can rent or stream it from Netflix here.
I got an advance review copy a while back and this past week had my friend Lisa over to watch it with me. Lisa is a sociologist who has lived for several years in India researching waste and water issues, which means she has spent a lot of time in dumps and with trash pickers (more on that to come in future posts).
I don’t want to belabor the review here. Short version: see this film. It made me cry. Twice. And I am not someone who cries easily.
The medium-length version: The storyline of Waste Land follows Muniz (via some slightly staged seeming Skype calls) setting up his project and getting others to help him execute his vision: to build large scale portraits of trash pickers using the trash they pick and getting those pickers to help him do it. Most of the film takes place outside of Rio at one of the world’s largest dump sites where you get to know an extremely compelling cast of characters who live and work there including a heartbreakingly young mother and the incredibly charismatic president of the cartadores association, which serves as a labor union and coop for the pickers.
Some interesting things I learned:
- One, cartadores aren’t trash pickers. They are recyclable materials pickers.
- Two, plastic is more lucrative to pick than glass according to the cartadores.
- Three, Vik Muniz’ breakout show was a series of portraits called Sugar Children for which he created images of the children of sugar plantation workers out of sugar.
As an aside, during post-viewing Googleing, I found this story and video on Brazilian picker associations collecting used veggie oil.
Lucy Walker is also the filmmaker behind The Devil’s Playground, a fascinating look at Amish adolescence, which answered many of the burning questions I accumulated about the simple life during my teen years in Central PA. Definitely also worth seeing.