Waste Land -- Film Review

Squalor and garbage make for a surprisingly heartwarming tale in doc about a Rio art project

PARK CITY -- A joy to watch despite the abject poverty it contains, Waste Land transcends the artist-doc format and has a broad emotional appeal that should ensure a warm reaction from theatrical audiences.

Easily as concerned with social and environmental issues as it is with the fine-art career that sets it in motion, the movie never focuses on big issues at the expense of the individuals it encounters.

The initial subject is Vik Muniz, an artist known for photographs that construct portraits or recreate famous images using materials like sugar, chocolate syrup, and trash. The Brooklyn-based photographer grew up poor in Brazil, and we meet him as he embarks on a massive project taking him to Rio de Janeiro's Jardim Gramacho, a garbage dump that receives more trash each day than any landfill in the world.

The dump is inhabited by "catadores," men and women who pick through the trash to recover recyclables, and Muniz intends to employ some of them to gather raw materials for a series of enormous images. As we meet the catadores, though, Muniz's project begins to seem uninteresting by comparison: From the autodidact labor organizer who reads discarded books, to the former restaurant cook who now feeds workers using garbage-truck produce, each is a fascinating person well worth listening to.

Director Lucy Walker spends plenty of time in their world, where viewers will marvel at squalid living conditions but be impressed by the subjects' resilient spirit, before getting back to the art project at hand: Muniz and his assistant take portrait photos of the men and women, some inspired by famous paintings, and together the team carefully scatters debris across a large studio floor, mosaic-style,to recreate those striking images.

Time-lapse shots of these coalescing pictures -- where unspooled film represents hair, plastic bottlecaps make outlines, sifted dust represents skin pigment -- provoke a gee-whiz reaction from the audience, but more resonant is the emotional transformation of the people who have gone from climbing mountains of trash to participating in the creation of artworks they themselves inspired. (Muniz, whose art commands high sale prices, sells work in the series to benefit the Garbage Pickers Association.)

The film pays attention to thorny issues raised by the project: Is Muniz doing his collaborators a favor by exposing them to his world,or giving them false expectations about what they might do with their lives? Months after they become the subject of media attention in Rio, the answer seems different for each person. Overall, though, the project brings enough good into this rough corner of the world that viewers can walk out with honest cause to be hopeful for its inhabitants.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival
Production companies: Almega Projects, O2 Filmes
Director: Lucy Walker
Co-Directors: Joao Jardim, Karen Harley
Executive producers: Almega Projects, 02 Filmes, Fernando Meirelles, Miel de Botton, Jackie de Botton
Producers: Angus Aynsley, Hank Levine
Director of photography: Dudu Miranda
Music: Moby
Editors: Pedro Kos
Sales Agent: Charlotte Mickie, E1 Entertainment
No MPAA rating, 98 minutes