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Review: Waste Land

By James Beale

April 15, 2011

"Waste Land" starts as an eco-friendly picture. Artist Vik Muniz goes to Jardim Gramacho, the largest landfill in the world, and decides to make pieces of art out of garbage.

But by the end of the film's 98 minutes, the focus is no longer Muniz, but the effect art can have on even the most poverty-stricken and the incredible humanity that the Brazilians show throughout.

In Jardim Gramacho, these "pickers" go through the immense amount of garbage brought in from surrounding areas, especially nearby Rio de Janeiro, who lacks a recycling program. They look for items in high demand, like PVC or glass bottles.

On Muniz's first trip to Gramacho, he notes that the pickers look surprisingly happy. As the film progresses, the audience begins to learn of their lives away from Gramacho, and a sense of despair appears.

Still, the pickers maintain an amazing sense of pride. They say multiple times they're proud to not be a prostitute or in the drug trade, common lines of work for Brazil's poor. 

They take pride in helping the environment, of course, but more important is being honest. By focusing on the humanity of the pickers, "Waste Land" never feels anything less than 100% genuine and human.

There's the head of an association for the pickers, who seeks better treatment for them and the recyclables. He gained much of his philosophy from Machiavelli's "The Prince," which he found in the trash.

Then there's the single mother with two children, who visits her house with the cameras. She works in Gramacho, apart from them, with the hope they will not have to follow in her footsteps. 

This is what the film focuses on in its second half, and this section is incredibly strong. Muniz doesn't even appear for large chunks of the film, and when he does, he's in the background. The pickers are really the focus. Talk about an unexpected star turn.

Muniz offers them a 2 week gig to help him with his next project - photographing the pickers at Gramacho and then utilizing trash from Gramacho to represent the image.

The portraits are an unexpected delight, one I won't spoil. But when Muniz wants to bring them all to London for an auction and show, his wife protests, asking how the pickers can go back to garbage after being paraded around a great city? This is a moral dilemma underlining the entire film, that of differing social class.

They do go, and after a Muniz piece of the head picker sells for $50,000 (all proceeds go directly to the pickers) and reporters crowd around to interview all of them at the art show, I'm not sure how they could go back to picking garbage. But isn't that the point?

3.5/4 stars

"Waste Land" is playing at The Lyric from April 15 to April 19 and April 21.