Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: Wasteland

Beauty in trash.

It can be a little distressing how the media and cinema treats the poor and lower classes sometimes. They try their darndest to make us feel sorry for the less-well-off that sometimes the people experiencing these conditions can get lost in the mixture. It's important for us to recognise what's going on beyond our comfortable existence, but sometimes cheesy music isn't the way to do it.

Waste Land is different. While these people aren't the poorest of the poor - earning a comparatively healthy salary of US$20-25 a day, according to one interviewee - working in Rio's largest landfill is a challenging existence. The workers live in favelas, many drug addicts or from broken homes. It's a tough life, but importantly it is a life, and that's what Waste Land never forgets.

Directed by Lucy Walker (with João Jardim and Karen Harley credited as co-directors) the documentary tells the story of Vik Muniz - Brazil's most successful artist internationally, he informs us (I should stress he's admirably modest throughout) - embarking a project to make portraits of the workers at Jardim Gramacho in Rio. He's determined to give something back to the community, considering he himself is of modest upbringing in the country. The documentary focuses on a number of the workers - from the leader of their trade union-like association to the woman who cooks the workers' meals daily amidst the trash. After giving us a bit of background on these people - all of whom have interesting, surprising back stories - we see their faces becoming works of art made out of the trash they pick through daily for recyclable material.

It's these colourful characters that add a real depth to the film. As they go through the process of becoming immortalised through art they all have very different reactions to the experience. Some embrace the process entirely, unable to return to their previous life of trash picking. Others are more determined than ever to succeed in their role in Gramacho. Most importantly, Muniz and the film-makers treat their subjects with a great respect. They live a tough life, no doubt - one tells of coming across a casually discarded baby's corpse in the dump. But there's no emotionally manipulative music here to toy with our feelings. They are who they are, their reality presented with clarity and honesty. They are likable people, often in difficult situations. They just get on with it, and it's very uplifting seeing some of them experience new and exciting opportunities as a result of their involvement with the project. However, some are ultimately happy to remain in Gramacho where they feel they belong.

Documentary film-making is a hard thing to do right, telling a story without manipulating the audience. Especially when you have three years worth of footage, editing something coherent and honest is a challenge. Walker and co. achieve something special here though. The promotional material calling it the "Slumdog Millionaire of Documentaries" is disingenuous, because this has none of the emotional manipulation of said (admittedly well directed) film. This is a more honest portrayal of poverty and a social class often ignored in cinema. It's uplifting, but quietly so, the characters and their outlook on life gradually winning you over as opposed to any tricks by the documentarians. It's a story of art and its potential to - very literally in this case - change lives. Sometimes lives don't need changing though, and in it's honest portrayal of an oft-ignored side of society Waste Lands excels.

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