Waste Land gives you a bit more to think about than the average documentary by harmonizing various polar themes: art and trash, landfills and humanity, poverty and wealth. Lucy Walker captures so much pride and cheer in the catadores (trash pickers) of Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro, Brasil that you have to be reminded of their precarious, materially-poor existence. Artist Vik Muniz serves as native interlocutor, bringing a project of redemption to his birthplace from his Brooklyn studio.
Recycling redeems materials back into the marketplace once they have ceased to be products. Even reposing in stinking mountains, they have an infinitesimal value. When transformed by manufacturing, they remain a base currency—a new product of recycled materials will be depleted of use value and discarded again.
Muniz transcends the mundane reincarnation of redeemables and people with the immortality of art. Without spoiling its many surprises, suffice it to say that the waste stream will never just be consumer goods again, and the people never again mere untouchables.
This has a salubrious tonic for artists as well. The film fleetingly reflects on modern art via several works by artists including Damien Hirst, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Warhol and of course Muniz. Muniz, born poor, has completed a cycle of his own. His success has given him freedom to live and work where and how he pleases, but as an adult he returns to the privation that formed him. He expresses some concern about safety amidst the drug use and slums, and then to all appearances throws himself in wholeheartedly.
The terror of childhood indigence drives many who’ve “made good” to turn their backs on all squalor forever. It’s not my place to chide them, but the loss to their former comrades is incalculable. Besides all the heartstring concertos, there is a message about the equivalence of humanity and its fleeting works: Where once we relied on religion (and art as its very handmaiden) to elevate life and its artifacts into the numinous, Muniz and Walker document the power of secular art doing same. This is not mere redemption, but salvation.
Alchemy gives the full sense of what Waste Land accomplishes: not the conversion of redeemables into new consumables, not just “moving on up” the class ladder nor a self-congratulatory commercial for Muniz and activist art. We post-/moderns who think of pre-Christian alchemy remember only the elemental “lead into gold,” forgetting its true aim of ultimate wisdom and transubstantiation of the mortal condition.