Wasteland is one of the nominees for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar. It starts off with a festival full of people, lights and sounds. Filmed on an epic scale, it seems more like a setting for a major fiction film. The festival is big, grand and full of life. Suddenly, it’s the next day and bin lorries mill around the same empty streets, picking up the debris of the previous night’s celebrations. The banners and a giant dragon, so vibrant and colourful before, are now wreckage waiting to be picked up. Yesterday’s art becomes today’s rubbish.
Wasteland follows Vik Muniz as he attempts to do the reverse, turning rubbish into high art. Filmed over almost three years, we see from the conception of the idea, then the production and the reception. We are also introduced to Muniz’s subjects, pickers, or catadores, of recyclable material in the world’s largest landfill in Jardim Gramacho, near Rio de Janeiro. Muniz constructs large-scale portraits of some of these people using the rubbish that surrounds them.
A documentary like this, about the transformative nature of art and poverty in classist Brazil, threatens to be a worthy and self-congratulatory experience. Wasteland largely avoids deifying Muniz or the pickers. Ultimately it explores the nature of the human spirit via the stories of the pickers. Many of them have lead troubled lives and hate their jobs, though they retain their humour and positivity. Some even love the landfill, seeing it as a place where real good can be done and where they are truly at home.
However, the documentary does not avoid the very real horrors of such an urban environment. The sights of the masses of rubbish spilling out of the lorries, while beautifully shot like a big budget film (at one point from above), gives a sobering look at what humans are doing to the environment. Other horrors are more close to home. One picker, her own life beset by a troubled family, recalls how she found a dead baby in the mountains of garbage.
Muniz’s art transforms garbage into something of value and elevating the pickers from the lower class wastrels that their society deems them to be. What is key to Wasteland, however, is that Muniz is not seen as a saviour. The pickers construct their own portraits and it is their own strengths and outlooks that get them by. Rather than a story of an artist, the film is a tribute to the people who work in Jardim Gramacho. It is here that the film really impresses. At times, it becomes truly inspirational and heart-warming. It may take a little to long to end, but it remains a refreshingly human story in a documentary that could have been a horribly inauthentic piece of work. As well as this, as a documentary about the process of creating art it has an impressive amount of access into the inner workings of the project. A pleasant surprise and a real joy to watch.