Waste Land (UK/Brazil, 2010, Lucy Walker, Karen Harley, Joao Jardim)
Could the title be any more misleading? Fuck Facebook and the movie about it. This film is the real social network. This film is not about garbage at all. It is not about a dump at all. It is about human dignity. At its most essential core and therefore in its most profound expression. And just as essentially and profoundly a part of this, it is about community. Deep and serious social solidarity. Jesus Christ - it's about love.
Yet, this love is not the mealy-mouthed, Sunday sermon sort. It is the all-through-the-work-week, class conscious sort. I do not have to elaborate on this, develop arguments to advance it as a thesis, provide evidence from the film to support the observation - for it is absolutely obvious throughout the film, on bold display from start to finish, saturating the screen non-stop from each and every pore of the document.
Waste Land is soulful. "Soul," not as: that which might get to heaven by the grace of God. No, "soul," as in: of the people, by the people and for the people; here, now and most of all, tomorrow. The achievement in the present that the film shows is truly inspiring. It delivers a promise for the future. This is not just your run-of-the-mill human interest story at the end of the evening news, a smear of feel-good icing on top of the nihilistic cake served up by the media to keep everyone "informed," that is, personally terrified, socially alienated and politically lame. No. Waste Land gives hope.
Did I make my kids watch Waste Land? You know I did. It's authentically educational. I believe it should be required viewing in high school social studies classes; for its ethical heart, to be sure, but more concretely how this heart beats in practice. The film is powerful for its activism, its cross-culturalism and its penetrating insight into the work and meaning of recycling. It is the latter which compels me to say that Waste Land should be required viewing in high school art classes as well.
There is a direct line from the anti-bourgeois, anti-nationalist, anti-colonialist anarcho-radical aspirations of Dadaism to Waste Land. But unlike so many post-Dada developments informed by it, Waste Land does not take that first fateful individualistic step that mostly tends to existential absurdity and despairing irony. In the film, recycling is a collective act in more than one sense of the word "collective". The associated labour process that reclaims materials previously designated as useless non-property entails the re-appropriation of these materials as useful. What is more, this transformation is from stuff not having use-value as privately owned property to stuff having use-value as collectively owned property. At the level of use-value, then, the art work is socialist property.
What about the exchange-value of this new property, is it also collectively owned? The film does not explicitly address the ownership of the artworks created by the associated producers once they get commodified. It is probably fair to assume that the originator and leader of the project, Vic Muniz, holds the copyrights. But he certainly incorporates his fellow artistic workers in a profit-sharing scheme. Over all, the political economy of the project is tending towards socialism if not there yet. It's one hell of an excellent social democratic cooperative.
Admittedly, unlike the class consciousness obviously beating in the ethical heart of Waste Land, this take on the political economy of the project it documents is an ideological interpretation on my part. In case my interpretation is found to be forced, compare Waste Land to another recently released documentary about public art, Exit Through the Gift Shop. Of course, Exit is not a real documentary at all. It is a faux-doc. Even so, it packs a considerable punch of punk politics.
Or does it? In my estimation, at the end of the day Exit is yet another footnote to Warhol and Warhol is ultimately part of the problem and not part of the solution; i.e., he's a prophet for profit by way of the reduction of art to advertising. Exit certainly tweaks the art establishment for colonizing street art for yet another sector of the big bucks art market. But as the full title ironically confesses, the buck stops there and so does the critique. Banksy hides solitary in the shadows in order to laugh all the way to the bank, see?
Vic Muniz, exactly opposite, gives something back, eh? He steps out of the gallery in order to step right back in, united with other people, people who would otherwise never make it in there. Not in a million years. The guy is a mensch. He remembers where he came from, he respects his roots, he returns to give something back. Yet he ends up taking as much as he gives. He employs, he enlightens, he empowers and he also eliminates some economic poverty. But damn if those dump-diggers don't raise his consciousness too and enable him to make art he could never make on his own. Not in a million years.
The Waste Land of the title is Jardim Gramacho, the "Garbage Garden," world's largest garbage dump, and the setting for one of the most touching ruminations on relationship between art, artist, subject and society that I've ever seen.
Vic Muniz, the artist--well, one of the artists--at the center of this film's action, had the luck and good grace as a young man growing up in Brazil to get shot in the leg by someone with enough money to allow Muniz to flee his troubled life in the homeland and head to America. It is there that he eventually became a successful artist, and one day decide to return to his roots. As Waste Land begins, Muniz is planning to head back to Brazil to start his next art project, where he wants to transform garbage into art.
And if this was only a film about this project, it would be a fine film indeed. But it is so much more than that.
Returning to Rio, Muniz goes exactly where one might expect an artist looking for garbage to go, the aforementioned Jardim Gramacho. Here we meet the pickers, or catadores, the men and women who make a living sifting through this city of refuse in order to glean valuable recyclables, and reclaim them, all for the equivalent of about $20 a day. It turns out that the wretched refuse of the world, who make their living out of what others reject, are anything but. The pickers do more that just find value where others see trash, they build an entire community out of it. This is, it turns out, not just a great story about how these people take care of the environment, but also how they take care of each other, how they build a real community out of other's waste.
And if this was only a film about this group of fascinating people, it would be a fine film indeed. But it is so more than that.
Because it turns out that Muniz has more in mind than a simple conversion project. He chooses as his subject matter not just the garbage in the world's largest dump, but the pickers of this dump as well. He hangs out with the people who work in one of the world's most foul places, and he gets to know them, and the world they have built for themselves. Waste Land begins to build its not insignificant emotional power throughout this portion of the film, as the wonderful humanity of catadores like Tiao and Suelem takes centre stage. Then and only then does he enlist their aid in the construction of his art projects, crafting artistic statements that reveal not only the character of the individual in question, but also placing each of those individuals in an artistic lineage that connects them to figures and forces of socio-political and historical significance.
And because Waste Land a film about all of this and more, it is a great film indeed. What begins as an interesting experiment, turning garbage into art, becomes a sociological study of the transformative power of art on people, and of people on the art and the artist. Waste Land shows us how people can be bound together through work and art, not only to each other, but also to their larger socio-political and historical legacy. It is a film about the ways humanity and beauty can be found, thrive even, in the most challenging and unlikely places, when people have the resolve, and the love, to make it so. Most importantly perhaps, is the fact that Waste Land is a real treasure, the sort of heartwarming and life affirming study of people, lacking in both sentimentality and cynicism, that uplifts the audience and elevates the art form.
Waste Land's trailer is below
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