Waste Land (2010)

Waste Land reminds us that documentary need not be about its maker. The age of celebrity has descended upon documentary to a point that filmmakers and their styles compete with their subjects. In many cases the filmmakers simply make themselves and their quest to prove a point the subject of their work. It can feel a bit indulgent, even off putting.

This documentary focuses on Brazilian born artist Vik Muniz. In returning to his home country and to the world’s largest garbage dump, Muniz looks to transform garbage into immense works of art. At the same time he seeks to know those who work in the dump and to empower them by employing them as his models, assistants and co-creators. Together they create warehouse sized portraitures of each employee. This works are then photographed and auctioned off, with the profits going back to the workers.

It’s a harrowing experience for both the viewers and for Muniz, but it is also quite joyful. The documentary allows us to share in the struggles, both economic and ethical, without feeling as if this whole project was dreamt up simply to showcase Muniz or his work. Not exactly a fly-on-the-wall, the filmmakers and their cameras do not lead the journey, but rather try to catch-up and simply document each stage of the project.

In many ways it is quite refreshing to see a documentary that just documents, one that doesn’t feel as if the directors or creators need to have their voice or thumbprints atop of it all.

Vik Muniz’ work, not just the completed product, but the actual practice, is one of the most moving artistic experiences I’ve witnessed in a long time and it truly speaks to the transformative power of art.

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