Movie Review: Waste Land

Have you seen the documentary Waste Land? If not this is a must-see film for any artist or person who cares about environmental issues. We received the film via Netflix this week, and my husband and I have been discussing since whether it’s a movie one should share with children.

What’s the subject matter? In this Oscar-nominated documentary Brazilian artist Vic Muniz tells the story of the recyclers who live on top of the biggest landfill of our planet. Jardim Gramacho  is located near Rio de  Janeiro, Brazil. Every day 7,000 tons of trash are dumped on this little island. The ground is so mushy in places that the dumptruck drivers must be very careful where they go for fear their truck might sink into the ground.

Modern artist Vic Muniz  came to fame and riches in the US.  At the beginning of the documentary we see images of Muniz telling his wife about his plans for the project. He tells her that he wants to make art and give back to his country and people at the same time. He convinces her and takes her  and a team of camera men to the landfill where they live for 2 years to shoot the documentary about the catadores.   Catador is the Brazilian word for trash picker. But the workers on the landfill insist that they want to be called recyclers.  They see their job description as being miners of useful things, skilled to find treasure in heaps of stuff that society has deemed useless.

Muniz points out that Brazilian society is very class conscious. The people who work at the landfill are looked down upon as lowest class of citizen. Muniz who grew up in a working-class household himself points to the fact that if his luck had been any different he may have ended up living on the landfill and poor like them. Only by  pure chance –  because he happened to get  shot by drug dealer who paid him money to keep his mouth shut – he got his Golden Ticket to go to the US and become an artist.

But the documentary not only changes our concept of what trash is, it also questions our concept of poverty. As Muniz’  portraits of the workers rise from the garbage, we get an entirely new perspective on humanity. Muniz hires  the workers Tião , Suelem, Irma, and Magna to work for him on the art project. He takes photos of each worker in a different pose taken from famous paintings. Then he builds scaffolds, projects the photos onto the ground, and has the workers fill in the images with discarded items from the landfill.  Discarded movie reels become the lines of a pencil. Bottlecaps become the texture of brushstrokes. The artwork is no different from a painting by numbers set  really – except it’s done with trash. In the end we are left breathless by the result: The photos taken from above make for amazing works of art.

The workers, people deemed refuse by Brazilian society, who we pity at the beginning of the documentary emerge as proud, beautiful, and totally amazing human beings. Life may have dealt them a bad card but they have not surrendered to the circumstances. Muniz’  plan to transform garbage and human lives in the end leaves the viewer transformed. We thought these people to be poor. Think again. It turns out that they are richer than the richest of man because of the vast size of their aspirations, hope, and dignity.

I think I will share this movie with our son who is 13. I am excited to hear what he thinks about it. I am still debating with myself whether it’s okay for my 10-year-old. Note the movie is subtitled in parts because the protagonists speak Portuguese. Every adult should definitely see this wonderful documentary!
Ulla Seckler  is a dollmaker who was born and raised in Germany. She lives in beautiful Colorado with her husband and two kids. You can find her Notes by a German Dollmaker on her blog where she shares some great German recipes, pictures of her sweet dolls, and life lessons learned.  Don’t forget to stop by her Etsyshop and take a peek at her wonderful doll creations.

  • BirchLeaf Designs

    By the sounds of your description of the documentary…I would definately show it to my children. Mine the Landfills!!!

    • Anonymous

      We actually did show it to the kids and they really liked it. My son was totally amazed by the artwork and how this rather strange story turned out in the end…
      I guess the part that I was worried about was the women talking about prostitution and how their life could have been easier turning tricks. My kids didn’t really understand what that meant. Luckily…

  • Robin H

    It defiantly sounds interesting and I’m a sucker for a good documentary. You should watch Coal Country, it’s about mountain top removal mining and the harm it does to the local environment and the people who live there.

  • The magic of hands

    I love recommendations for hopeful films! Thanks for taking the time to review this one. I will definitely add it to my list.

    • Anonymous

      You are most welcome! We watched it a second time with the kids yesterday. I like it even more now.

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