Waste Land Lucy Walker

Waste Land Lucy Walker
Much of what I've read about Waste Land (Lucy Walker's supposed meditation on the transformative power of art) is exceedingly superficial, noting how inspirational and uplifting it is when successful artist Vik Muniz heads off to Jardim Gramacho (an enormous landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro) to photograph garbage pickers. More accurately, their job is to sift through refuse to find recycling products, given the lack of employment prospects in the region. Muniz interacts with a handful of these people, using posed photographs of them on the landfill site to expand upon, and integrate, the found trash items to make an aesthetically complex, and somewhat patronizing, work of beauty from discarded objects and people. It's the sort of thing a high school art student would do if they had the resources and warehouse space. Now, what is supposedly touching and powerful is that Muniz takes these humble people of the land, embarrassed by their jobs, stating, "it's better than prostitution," and makes them the subject of art, bringing them to MOMA for a single weekend of wining and dining with the pretentious elite. And while Walker directs this from a distant eye, detailing the art subjects with candid honesty, there are some observations and moments that make this documentary far more complex than Sunday afternoon TVO pap. Muniz's wife challenges his solipsism, asking the question: "What about the psychological implications of using these people? What happens when they have to go back to picking through garbage after being dressed up and paraded around for publicity opportunities?" It's a question exacerbated by the awkward moments of Muniz directing his confused subjects, exploited by flattery, to stand and pose in specific ways for photographs while engaging in condescending "real" conversation. Furthermore, Muniz talks about how his initial reaction to success in the art world led to his buying gadgetry to show off, acknowledging that this no longer thrills him. So what does thrill a successful man with a bit of power? Could it be positing himself an ersatz God or saviour? Is his journey to Brazil to photograph the people, making lofty proclamations about how they also can share his success, about them and altruism or is it about his image and his sense of superiority? These are all questions that Walker's exceedingly well-edited and magnetic documentary brings up. She does it subtly, never passing judgment, but ensures that her work is one of distanced complexity that inspires thought, which is what makes it such an exceptional documentary. Included with the DVD is a brief supplement about Gramacho, giving some background not covered in the film. (eOne)