Calling Waste Land, a film about artist Vik Muniz, the best documentary on a contemporary artist is a bit of an oxymoronic statement. The film’s strengths reside in less what the film is and more what it isn’t. It isn’t, ultimately, a film about an artist, but a film about art and life — the convergence, transformation, and complications of each when they come in close contact. It’s as much a film about the the artistic document you’re watching as it is the artistic project it’s documenting. The result does not seem intentional, appearing instead out of happenstance and blind luck, resulting in a more convoluted but rewarding viewing experience.
After meeting Vik Muniz through mutual friends, director Lucy Walker thought it might be interesting to document one of his next projects (the artist is known for creating works of art out of sugar, chocolate, and dust). This moment turned into a three-year project, with Walker following Muniz into Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest garbage dump located in Rio de Janeiro. There, Muniz would find “pickers,” who earn their income digging through the trash piles for recyclable materials, with the intention of having them create works of art out of their environment.
Although Muniz is the main character, Walker, who previously documented Amish youth and blind Tibetan teenagers, is more interested in the group of “pickers” Muniz photographs and convene in his studio to help him make the works of art. Her camera tends to linger on the faces of the workers, moving close, carving out a more intricate space for them to exist in the frame. No matter if we are watching these characters working on the floor of Muniz’s studio, concentrating on placement and color of materials, or engulfed by rolling hills of waste caving in around them, it’s clear that they form the emotional core of what Walker is trying to show us.
But what exactly is Walker trying to show us? Although Waste Land wraps up neatly as it pushes toward the end, ethical issues concerning the subjects linger long after the credits roll: What are the implications of Muniz’s project? Or charity in general? Is it truly possible, or even fair, to move in and change people’s lives when, for all intents and purposes, they never asked for that change?
Rather than brushing this dilemma aside, Walker wonderfully brings these issues to the forefront in what is the most memorable scene in the film. Muniz, in a candid argument with his wife, is confronted about the harm he may be inadvertently causing. The narrative Muniz has constructed of his own life — a poor boy from Brazil escapes to become New York Art Star — is equal parts myth-making and reality, and to push this as a possible narrative for the “pickers” is to ignore the many obstacles that block their path. His obliviousness toward the attachment the “pickers” are feeling toward their new, temporary way of life, as well as the complications that may arise when they’re expected to return, result in this confrontation that provides the key to what this film holds in its grip.
That grip loosens in the final section of Waste Land, where we are presented with information made to provide a collective sigh of relief for the audience. Unfortunately, many of these answers are too easy, quick and digestible solutions to the larger problem the film builds throughout its first three quarters. Despite this shortcoming, we are left with a film document that boldly attempts to tackle a wide breadth of concerns, straddling the line between art and life. Emerging though the haze of a happy-go-lucky ending is a sense of anxiety: while we can’t control what happens to the characters of Waste Land, let’s hope we didn’t fuck them up.