I don't often get the chance to review documentaries, but when I do it always reminds me how bloody marvellous this medium of film-making can be, for getting a million and one different messages across to such a huge audience. Lucy Walker's Waste Land featuring South American born artist, Vik Muniz has already received worldwide critical acclaim since debuting at last year's Sundance Film Festival, even picking up a nomination for Best Documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards.
The film follows Muniz over a two year period as he attempts to produce works of art, from recycled goods taken from the Jardim Gramacho landfill site in Rio de Janeiro, in the form of portraits of a collection of low-level employees known simply as "pickers". I found the whole experience of Waste Land a profoundly humbling and uplifting experience. It wasn't just following the journey of Muniz and watching his works of art develop, nor was it some ham-fisted attempt to get yet another environmental warning across to the audience. The documentary was a chance to get to know these people who have lived and breathe this situation, pretty much from early childhood.
And the truly humbling aspect of this film was realising that this, supposedly, lower class of people were deeply honest, decent, reasonably well educated souls - considering the majority of them lacked any form of schooling. Some people with true aspirations for greater things in life and others who, heaven-forbid, actually enjoyed the work they did and valued the community spirit they have created within this workforce.
Waste Land also works well as a more moving and optimistic counter balance or companion piece to Bansky's Exit Through The Gift Shop, which it's going up against at the Oscars this year. Whilst Bansky's work is quite an honest yet extremely slapstick portrayal which highlight the flaws of modern art, Muniz takes something which sounds a little absurd or patronising on paper and creates something truly mesmerizing and positively life-changing . It also thankfully lacked that self-congratulatory smugness that sometimes comes with celebrities contributing to helping lower class citizens.
One of the truly provocative highlights of the documentary was whilst working with the small group of people from the landfill site, the artist's wife quite rightly questioned the morality of taking these people out of, what is probably considered, their comfort zone and offering them only a glimpse of a richer more indulgent lifestyle of making works of art, going to galleries etc. But I loved the positive effect it had on these people's lives as the credits rolled, the gorgeous pieces of art created from the photographs and the complete different stories each of them had to tell. Beautiful.
On a superficial level the film was simply a joy to watch visually, Lucy Walker created quite a stylish presentation and edited the feature beautifully. Also if anyone can tell me where I can acquire Moby's exquisite ambient soundtrack created specifically for Waste Land, I would be greatly thankful.
If Waste Land teaches you anything it's that one man's garbage is another man's treasure, in quite possibly every literal sense. A deeply thoughtful and delicately balanced documentary about an acclaimed artist giving something back to his home country, which doesn't overshadow the people he's trying to portray in his artistic portraits, and through Lucy Walker's tender heart-warming camera work. Uplifting, genuinely, moving cinema. Don't miss it. Your life will be better for it.
Waste Land is in selected cinemas now. Belfast audiences can see it in the Queen's Film Theatre from March 4th 2011.