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by Eric Kohn
October 25, 2010 2:02 AM
4 Comments
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REVIEW | Ego vs. Altruism: Turning Trash Into Art in "Waste Land"

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.

4 Comments

  • Bella Serpsum | October 31, 2010 5:15 AMReply

    Eric: Thanks for this very insightful review. This film brings a unique perspective to a contemporary issue.

  • B Ruby Rich | October 29, 2010 5:32 AMReply

    Thank you, Vik, for that addition, and Eric for the review. I saw WASTE LAND at the Provincetown Film Festival in June and was absolutely astonished and delighted by it. In addition to my journalism, I teach in the Social Documentation (SOC DOC) M.A. Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. We attract committed, disciplined students who want to change the world -- but also want to change their relationship to the people they're filming or photographing, to make them into collaborators: the AfroColombians displaced off their ancestral lands, the Salvadoran musicians hounded into exile or assassinated by the junta, the Iraqi and Somali refugees in the US, the Dominican kid struggling to get through eighth grade in New York City's public school. For them, your work is an inspiration and a triumph over the usual systems of exchange in these professions. Thank you, thank you.

  • Vik muniz | October 28, 2010 12:39 PMReply

    Hi Eric,
    There is an amazing amount of information that unfortunately, due to the film's format, has to be left out. The sale and dissemination of the photographs not only have converted into significant improvement in the life of those who participated in the film, but also it has propelled the identity of the "catador" into the mainstream discussion about a recently passed legislation on recycling. Largely because of the pictures, the new law, obliges recycling firms to hire organized catadores from recycling cooperatives such as Tião, to operate their facilities. This act enables a clear transition from the sub-human conditions of working in the dump to a union protected, safe and heath concerned working environment for this super skilled class of professionals. The sale of the pictures also matched funds from the Coca Cola institute, an environmental NGO, to develop and implement business courses designed specifically for co-ops like ACANJ to manage their business. The program that started with two hundreds representatives of recycling co-ops was so successful that now is going nationwide and will impact the lives of tens of thousands catadores. We are also actively influencing legislation of the lift of taxation for recycling equipment, enforcement of the new policy of solid residues, and creating a fund to provide free equipment to starting co-ops.
    There is only so much in the change of my relationship with the catadores that could be featured in the film. But what I really wanted you to know, is that if the pictures alone have brought so much change for the lives of these people, the film will really help them in their efforts to be further recognized as a class of professionals and assure themselves a place in the significant transitions in environmental policies that are now taking place.

  • Nick Gunn | October 25, 2010 6:11 AMReply

    "Lucy Walker’s “Waste Land” amounts to a cinematic round of applause for altruism...

    "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."

    Exactly.