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Waste Land - UICA FIlms review


Underwriting support from:

Waste Land at the UICA

2/25 Friday – 2:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00 PM
2/26 Saturday – 2:00, 4:00, 6:00, 8:00 PM
2/27 Sunday – 12:15, 6:00 PM
2/28 Monday – Closed
3/1 Tuesday – 6:00, 8:00 PM
3/2 Wednesday – 6:00, 8:00 PM
3/3 Thursday – 6:00, 8:00 PM


Matinee (before 5:30 PM)
$4 for UICA Members
$6 for Non-Members
$4 for Children under 12

Evening (5:30 PM and later)
$5 for UICA Members
$7 for Non-Members
$5 for Children under 12

"There is so much excess that it becomes art." - Vik Muniz

OK, I’ll admit it. I like stuff. A lot. The Husband, as I refer to him, detests the accumulation of stuff for stuff's sake. So we’ve agreed to this rule: For every one thing we (well, I) purchase, two must vacate the premises. Of course, there is some bending of the rule. But while we bicker and tease about our polar opposite approaches to consumption, we have agreed to neutralize our carbon footprint as possible. Ultimately, very little in our household goes to waste.

After viewing WASTE LAND, however, everything I believe in that last statement has become moot.

WASTE LAND, directed by Lucy Walker, is a 98-minute documentary that chronicles the three-year journey of Vik Muniz, a Brazilian born, New York based artist who works with non-traditional materials, and his quest to turn garbage into art. It follows the lives of the people he inspired and is inspired by during the process.

Previously, Muniz gained critical acclaim for such works as his Double Mona Lisa, After Wharol, in which he used peanut butter and jelly to recreate Da Vinci's masterpiece. In the Sugar Children series, Muniz used various types of sugar to create images of children who lived on a sugar plantation in St. Kitts, Virgin Islands. In 2003, Muniz presented at TED on his creation process of using unusual materials such as chocolate, wires, and diamonds.

For WASTE LAND, Muniz chose the "catadores," the self-described recyclable materials pickers who live and work at Jardim Gramacho, as his subjects. Located outside of Rio de Janeiro, Jardim Gramacho has been billed as the largest landfill in the world and, at 321 acres, is the size of 243 American football fields.

The stories of the catadores are simultaneously beautiful, unsettling, inspiring, depressing, but most of all, compelling.

There’s Tiao, the man behind the Association of Recycling Pickers of Jardim Gramacho, the grassroots union to protect the pickers' rights. Zumbi, the landfill’s resident poet and intellectual, who keeps all the books he finds, not only to read but also to build a local library. Isis and Magna, women who came from lower middle class backgrounds who though twists of bad luck, went from house owners to recycle material pickers. Suelem, a girl of 18 with two children of her own, who has been a picker since the age of seven. And, finally, Irma, Jardim Gramacho's self-appointed cook and counselor.

The catadores are not just characters in a story, but people whose lives mirror our own. They fall in love and get married. They get divorced. They read and go out. They travel, they save, and they try to live a better life. The main difference between our lives and theirs is that they live and work in garbage.

And that difference changes everything. When your life is Jardim Gramacho, you do what you have to do to stay alive, to get ahead. When you earn the equivalent of $25 USD a day, as Suelem points out, you live in a rat-infested house because it only costs $8 a week, and you need to send money home to your family in addition to buying necessities.

In one scene we watch Isis, who has no indoor plumbing, use water pulled from a local well to get ready to go out. Irma feeds the catadores with nearly expired vegetables and meat grabbed before trucks dump them into the landfill.

Most trash pickers pull furniture, books, and clothing from the dump to fill their homes and clothe their backs. A camera pan across their shelves reveals that even shampoo and lotion are salvaged from the landfill. Literally nothing goes to waste.

But their work is honest, so the pickers take pride in what they do. The women discuss how they are not prostitutes, the men that they are not drug dealers.
While many of the catadores are not formally educated, their work affords them the training to make unique insights into the human condition. For example, they know by your garbage what kind of lifestyle you lead. A poor person puts their trash in small bags; therefore, the wealthier you are, the bigger the bag. They chastise the middle class for throwing out perfectly good clothing, shoes, and electronics.
The pickers also see things no one should ever see. In one poignant moment, Suelem breaks down on camera while explaining that the pickers often find things that are not pleasant. She describes finding a dead baby in a bag, tossed carelessly into the trash.

WASTE LAND challenges you to rethink your ideas of consumption and waste and also of human dignity. What really is the quality of life? Is it how much you own? How much you are loved? Is it what you do, in the end, with your life? Or is it how you live it? The movie thrusts these kind of questions at you and you, the viewer, are forced to grope for answers. Sometimes finding that none are readily available.

Despite all the praise for the film, I have three fundamental problems with WASTE LAND.

First is the editorial direction in which the director chose to sequence the scenes, which makes the film feel disjointed and unfocused. For example, Valter, a catador selected to participate in the art project, died soon after the filming started. The viewer does not learn about Valter's fate until the end of the movie; however, scenes of Valter as he struts through Jardim Gramacho are randomly spliced in though he's never shown to be directly working on the project.

Additionally, the film’s point of view deviates too much between Muniz and the pickers. For example, one scene jumps, inexplicably, from a random project meeting with Muniz and his Brazilian assistant to another scene of the catadores, with no tie-in or segue between the two. I was never quite sure who the story was really about. Is it about Muniz, his crew, and what they are doing? Is it about the pickers and how being a part of this experience changes them? Or is it about both of them? Without explainable segues, the shifts and jumps appeared amateurish and felt like last minute decisions.

Finally, I have a problem with Muniz himself. Having grown up in Sao Paulo, in a similar neighborhood as the catadores, Muniz wants to give back. He plans to donate all of the proceeds of the art project back to the catadores—a noble gesture the catadores praise.

But as the project moves on, Muniz keeps remarking that a twist of fate brought him out of the slums, to America, to a better life. He begins to question his own existence. When he was poor he wanted everything and now that he has everything, he wants nothing. Nothing feels the same.

He rallies against the system, the politics, and the unfairness of the catadores’ lives, which could very well have been his own. But because he’s rallying against The Man from the safety of his million-dollar Brooklyn studio, kitted out in expensive modern furniture, sitting in a $6,000 Eames chair, it’s difficult to take him seriously.

WASTE LAND could have been a remarkable film. You fall in love with the catadores honesty, directness and passion. They inspire you to rethink your own life and how you live it.

But the direction and editing of the film leaves it unsettled and disjointed. I felt that the transitions from scene to scene were too rough and required more explanation. Ultimately, the film fell flat against its own expectations. As one of the pickers remarked, "Totally trash of the middle class," just like Muniz and just like me.


A 2011 Oscar nominee for best documentary.

Rating: 3.5/5


Disclosure: The UICA has provided a free preview screening to the author of this review prior to release.

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