Lucy Walker's "Waste Land" amounts to a cinematic round of applause for altruism. Using a conventional blend of talking heads and verité, Walker follows Brazilian visual artist Vik Muniz to his hometown of Rio de Janeiro, where he created the traveling exhibit "Pictures of Garbage" out of material from the world's largest landfill. Muniz, now a famous practitioner based in Brooklyn, employed local garbage pickers to help in the assembly of his massive canvases, then used the money from the work to improve their lives. The project is obviously commendable and his accomplishments deserve singling out, but Walker's documentary simply pats him on the back for it. Such culturally sophisticated activism begs for a probing approach.
Muniz has a track record with capitalizing on the idea that a laborer's craft can form his or her physical identity. (With the 1996 series "Sugar Children," Muniz created portraits of young workers at a sugar plantation in the West Indies using the material they harvested.) "Pictures of Garbage" takes the concept about as far as it can go, turning ostensibly grotesque substances into a galvanizing representation of the individuals responsible for its management. The largest landfill in the world, Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Gramacho blends the waste of rich and poor people into a vast, stinking heap of junk. In its contents, Muniz finds an intriguing representation of the national character. The workers, then, become symbolic faces of the Brazilian underclass, whose efforts sustain the society as a whole.
The project is incredibly colossal undertaking. Muniz commissions large-scale portraits of the pickers and employs them in the creative process. "I never imagined I'd become a work of art," one says, staring down at his portrait-in-progress. In that sense of awe, "Waste Land" flirts with an intriguing problem: Does Muniz's project take advantage of his subjects for his own creative gain? The project does appear to improve their lives to a certain extent, but Walker barely digs into the tension between the artist's ego and its potential to do good. Instead, she foregrounds his pity for the residents rather than the brutal reality of their day-to-day existence. He gets away with talking more about himself than anything else. After witnessing a close-up of his eyes, we hear him reflect on his impoverished upbringing. The redemptive nature of the art clashes with the personal needs of its creator.
Walker nimbly glosses over the question of whether Muniz exploits the garbage pickers. A title card notes that the finished exhibit attracted over a million visitors, second only to Picasso. As a result, despite Muniz's evident sincerity, the real star of the show is the artist and art -- not the struggles of his subjects. And that story, unlike "Pictures of Garbage" itself, is fairly second-rate.