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Dignity on the World's Biggest Garbage Heap.
on 16 March 2011
This very fine documentary feature was the first to win audience awards at both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals. It was also nominated for best documentary at the 2011 Academy awards. I have a feeling that if it was down to an audience vote it would have won! It has also won a number of awards at other international film festivals. "Wasteland" has been marketed as a film which shows how lives are transformed through the power of art, and for once the advertising is not exaggerating. The film follows a project by the Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, as he uses recyclable materials from the massive landfill site of Jardim Gramacho, Rio De Janeiro, to use in his work. In terms of sheer volume of trash received in a day it is the worlds busiest landfill, and working on it day and night like a swarm of locusts are the contadores, the pickers who grab any recyclable materials to make a living. Amongst the scavenging birds, the rats, the flies and the stink which seems almost tangible to the watcher, these people go about their work with unexpected dignity.
The human race is by some distance the messiest life form on this planet. This generation particularly so, and I have a feeling history will judge us as such. Just how messy you will see from this film. Do we really need all this stuff? Lives are laid bare amongst the garbage which tells a tale. Muniz himself says that after escaping poverty he brought a lot of possessions to satiate his desire for material things, and adds that this desire was extinguished. Cut to Muniz's plush apartment full of nice objects. Therein lies the contradiction that is at the heart of our wasteful, consumer led society. We fill our homes full of stuff from China and it ends up in landfill. In the film Muniz picks out characters working on the site. One young woman called Isis has been working there since she was seven. Another is a leading light in the pickers association. One young man relates how he recovered a copy of Machiavelli's "The Prince" from the rubbish, and compares the Florence of that period with its petty fiefdoms to the drug controlled flavela areas of Rio. These people are photographed by Muniz and then work on his art project, which has a huge transforming effect on them. One even travels to an art exhibition in London. I was reminded of Pocahontas being transported to Elizabethan England. Perhaps most telling is that only one of them, who is to old too change her ways, decides to go back to Gramacho after the project has ended.
There is much to admire in the dignity of these people in a harsh environment. They support one another and show more tolerance than the people at a local car boot sale do. These people are also doing a durned fine job in recycling vast amounts of material each day. The tears that you see on screen are clearly genuine, which is very moving. The art that Muniz turns out is actually very good. His type of art I can relate to, which is more than I can say for Damien Hirst. The director Lucy Walker together with co-directors Joao Jardim and Karen Harley have made a genuinely uplifting film out of unpromising material, echoing Muniz's work. Most importantly the 250,000 dollars raised from the sale of pictures at auction was given to the pickers association, thus helping to improve the working conditions of these remarkable people. An added bonus for me was the fine accompanying music by Moby a group I admire. This is a heartwarming documentary that celebrates the human spirit and deserves all the plaudits it got.