Documentary filmmaker Lucy Walker had a phenomenal run in 2010. Two documentaries she helmed (“Waste Land” and “Countdown to Zero”) hit theaters, she collected a slew of trophies and toured the world on the film festival circuit from Berlin to Sundance. This year finds Walker basking in the glow of an Oscar-nomination for “Waste Land,” bringing more attention than ever to the U.K. born director.
A testament to the transformative power of art, “Waste Land” documents famed contemporary artist Vik Muniz’s three-year collaboration with the catadores who make a living picking recyclables from Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill located outside of Rio de Janeiro. Muniz, who grew up in Rio, travels home to shine a light on the hardships endured by catadores, by having them assist him in creating massive recyclable art projects.
Walker dropped down in New York to take part in a Q&A with moderator Morgan Spurlock following a special screening of the film in New York earlier this week. Below are snippets from the chat.
Have you spoken with Vik and Tião [the most prominently featured garbage picker in the film] since the film’s Oscar nomination?
Tião said something amazing. He said, “I keep thinking that the clock is going to tick and the shoes are going to vanish and everything is going to go back to the way it was before. I can’t believe it, it’s a fairytale.” A lot of things have really changed for them.
What are some of the big changes that have happened since the film started its run?
I keep waiting for Tião to turn corrupt. Nothing bad has happened!
We’ve raised more money as Vik continues to sell the portraits. It’s not confirmed, but it seems very much to me that we’ve raised 25,000 pounds, which is amazing.
Tião is at the forefront of this amazing movement of recycling laws being modernized, and that’s another thing that’s coming. I don’t know if that’s party as a result of this film, but certainly this momentum has been created by his work and by some beautiful forces. The recycling laws in Brazil have been changed in the last few months in really good ways that nobody is seems to be opposing.
There’s some amazing news which you don’t know. Tião obtained his VISA, got his plane ticket and is coming to the Academy Awards!
They’ve been fighting for it. That’s amazing. Who else am I going to take with me but Tião? If we won that would be even more amazing. So if you know anyone in the Academy, do tell them to vote.
Speaking of which, I was going to wear garbage bags to the ceremony, but I shouldn’t.
Not even a Vera Wang garbage bag, absolutely not. What was the timeline from the minute you started brainstorming to finally completing the project?
I think there’s always some sort of denial that sets in when you go over how long it took to make a film, because it’s always a large piece of your life – you’re quite a lot younger when you began. The whole journey from here till now was about five years.
How did the original idea come about?
It was me and Vik just saying, “Gosh, I really like your work.” I liked his work which I came across during my time at NYU. I really didn’t think anything would come of it. I just was curious, which is the best reason for anything to go anywhere. I had this really great puzzle: how do you make a film about an artist and his process, and how do you make that into an interesting 90-minute film?
What did you have to go through before landing down on the landfill to commence shooting?
When I went there I had so many vaccinations I could barely move my arm. They just give you every vaccination they’ve ever invented. When you get there, what I observed was a lot more accidents from physical trauma. The garbage is unstable, things fall over, people get run over and on top of that, they’re dealing with glass.
Was there any tension while shooting with other workers at the dump who weren’t part of Vik’s project?
Not so much. At the beginning it was like, people saw us and the very first thing you saw was everyone being very friendly. About five minutes later, we’d put down the camera, and people would come up asking for twenty bucks to sign the release form. I’m always very strict about that kind of stuff. If you start giving anyone any money it starts to be about the money. You’ve got to keep explaining we’re here because we’re interested, we care and we’re human beings. You have to be quite strict about not getting into some inflationary spiral of bad. You got to keep the spirit so entirely pure and about the subject. Then you’re in good shape.
The only really tough thing I did, was that Vik actually made a couple more portraits, and I cut the subject’s stories out because the stories just weren’t flying. It was a tough decision and they were very sad. You have to be ruthless in your cutting. There were actually some tears from them at the premiere.
Previous 2011 Oscar Nominee Profiles:
“Blue Valentine” Actress Michelle Williams
“Incendies” Director Denis Villeneuve
“The Social Network” Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross
“True Grit” Actress Hailee Steinfeld