It wasn’t enough for Brazil-born artist Vik Muniz to base his latest work on his homeland’s impoverished and then donate the sales to them—he had to enlist a documentary crew to film him doing it.
The latest from Lucy Walker is in part a chronicle of its subject’s earth-quaking generosity. Having escaped a life of misery, Brooklyn-based Muniz decided to play hero to Rio’s Jardin Gramacho, the planet’s largest landfill, and its catadores, pickers who salvage the many recyclable materials carelessly chucked in the nation’s bins by millionaires and favela dwellers alike. Thus are born warehouse-sized “portraits” of the workers made of trash—each a silhouette surrounded by colorful garbage, preserved in hi-res photo form for show and sale.
Muniz sports one of those romantic views of the poor, all but literally patting himself on the back for recognizing that the downtrodden are people, too. Walker, however, leads by example. Despite co-conceiving the project with Muniz, she’s only partially interested in documenting her artist-star’s ego, eventually shifting the attention to the workers and their lives. The film’s middle section is theirs entirely, and they use it to talk about choosing a low-paying but honorable gig in lieu of prostitution or drugs. Indeed, Walker is so concerned with the ethics of documentary-making that once the pieces are ready, she throws in long discussions on how the workers will deal with international attention.
Still, for all Walker’s tireless work, Waste Land never quite avoids self-aggrandizement. Muniz returns at the end to proclaim himself savior, while attempts to make the catadores seem more than “working class” smack of condescension. Moreover, it blows the chance to document the creation of Muniz’s plus-sized pieces. Walker overuses sped-up footage as if this were a show on TLC. With the reek of ego lurking in the background, Waste Land could almost be a reality show, anyway.