Aspen New Views: ‘Waste Land’
ASPEN – For her new film, “Countdown to Zero,” director Lucy Walker knew she was heading into nasty territory. The documentary, which was released in New York City last week and had a recent preview screening at the Aspen Ideas Festival, examines the escalation of the nuclear arms race, and the threat it poses to the planet.Likewise, in her prior film, “Waste Land,” Walker focused on one of Earth’s uglier corners: Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, accepting some 7,000 tons of garbage a day from Rio de Janeiro and surrounding municipalities.But the tone of “Waste Land” – which premiered in January, at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award in the world documentary category, and is just now hitting the festival circuit – is essentially the polar opposite of Walker’s newer film. Where “Countdown to Zero” is about humanity’s destructive tendencies, “Waste Land” is about mankind’s impulse to create.In “Waste Land” – which shows Monday, July 26, at Paepcke Auditorium, in the New Views: Premiere Documentaries series – Walker focuses not on the ugliness of Jardim Gramacho, but on the possibilities lying amidst the garbage heap. The film profiles Vik Muniz, the prominent Brazilian artist, and the project he undertook in collaboration with the catadores, the workers who pick the valuable waste out of Gramacho and sell it for scrap value. With Muniz’s vision and guidance, the catadores find that the materials they harvest can be made into something unimaginably valuable – works of contemporary art which, at film’s end, sell at auction for $50,000 a pop.Several of the garbage-pickers use their share of the money to better their lives, which would be a heart-warming conclusion in itself. But the ending of “Waste Land” goes beyond the practical aspects of escaping Gramacho. The reaction of the catadores to seeing their faces in gorgeous, massive-scale portraits, hanging in Rio’s finest museum, is something to behold. This is not merely recycling materials; this is the recycling of the human spirit.”I think people who live and work in Jardim Gramacho, they’re really outcasts from society,” Walker said, explaining the catadores’ extreme reactions. “Their career options are dealing drugs, prostitution or garbage-picking. For anyone, seeing yourself in these massive portraits would be awesome. But to see these in the Museum of Modern Art, a place they haven’t even visited, is extremely huge for somebody who’s suffered like they have. You’re not just giving people money, but creativity, playfulness, the possibility of transformation.”Walker found that even before this transformation took place, she was working with some surprisingly worthwhile raw materials. The catadores she profiles, while they occasionally bemoan their job and their place of work, are far from defeated, depressed spirits. The overall portrait that emerges is of a group of underprivileged but uncomplaining people, born into Rio’s notorious favelas, opting for garbage-picking over drugs and prostitution. Walker says her favorite character is the elderly Walter, who comes off as the philosophical shaman of Gramacho. Still, she devotes the most screen time to Tiao, a handsome and vibrant young man who is one of the leaders of the pickers’ union. Tiao tells of having worked at Gramacho from the age of 11, and always seeking out books from the mounds of trash. As a kid he found a copy of Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” which fostered an interest in leadership. At one point in “Waste Land,” he illustrates an insightful parallel between the social order in Machiavelli’s 16th-century Florence and his own 21st-century Rio.”That’s a more sophisticated comparison than anyone I know can make,” said Walker, a London native who lives in Southern California.Walker, who will attend the Aspen screening and take questions, adds that while the people at Gramacho are on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, they are not wretches who have given up on life. “It’s almost like Shakespeare got there first,” she said of the depth of the characters and their stories. “We were sort of expecting to see zombies and monsters, and instead it’s the most amazing people you’ve ever met.”Adding a poignant dimension to the documentary is Muniz, a star of the art world whose typical method is to create objects out of unusual materials, and then make photographs of those works. Muniz lives in Brooklyn and shows his work internationally (he was honored several years ago with Anderson Ranch Arts Center’s National Artist Award), but doesn’t seem at all above the garbage-pickers in “Waste Land,” and for good reason: He was raised in a shabby neighborhood in Rio, and a segment of the documentary has Muniz pointing out the leaky roof in his childhood home.Walker says she didn’t purposefully line up “Countdown to Zero” as a counterweight to “Waste Land” (or to “Blindsight,” her inspiring 2006 documentary about the blind mountaineer Erik Weihenmayer leading an expedition of blind Tibetans up Everest). “The thread is just doing the most interesting story I can pursue,” she explained. But there is the plain fact that the two recent films can work like bookends: In “Countdown to Zero,” human beings take valuable materials and build them in the most threatening, harmful way possible, and the result is opposition, war and death. In “Waste Land,” people take discarded objects and turn them into things of beauty, dignity and value, and the result is elevation and hope.”It’s a primal story – transforming garbage into something you put on your wall, and selling it back to the rich people who threw this stuff away in the first place,” Walker said. She then spotlights one of her favorite moments from the film: Tiao appears on Brazil’s most popular talk show, and the show’s host refers to making art from garbage. Tiao corrects him: “It’s not garbage. It’s recycled materials.””That sums up the movie: Don’t ever count anyone out,” Walker said. “People can be recycled too.”••••The practice of turning garbage and ugliness into art may be a trend of the times. While “Waste Land” is screening in Aspen, the 212 Gallery will be setting up its group exhibition, Spill: Crude Response – oil, plastics and perspective. The show, which opens Wednesday, July 28, features Daniel Beltr’s photographs of the recent Gulf of Mexico oil spill, works that focus on beauty rather than devastation; sculptures by Aurora Robinson, whose materials are discarded plastic diverted from the waste stream.Also this week, multimedia artist Kenji Williams will appear at the Aspen Environment Forum to present his multimedia piece, “Bella Gaia,” which uses music and NASA footage to spotlight such issues as climate change and air email@example.com
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