Friday, September 23, 2011

Film Review: Transformation and redemption in "Wasteland"

It is difficult to watch people in difficult circumstances. More than a dramtization of events, a documentary introduces you to the actual participants and allows a gut level reaction, and an identification that allows empathy as you hear the story.
Wasteland was a difficult film for me to watch. I didn’t like seeing the dirt and the filth in which people were forced to work. Yet I had respect for the reasons some were there: honest work, to stay off the streets, to simply try to earn a living vs. stealing. Vik Muniz’ vision of giving back to this sector of his community is a grand gesture to bring to light a hidden society. What he didn’t count on was that he would become involved and care about the lives of his participants.
Muniz’ original idea was to do a project that would benefit the hidden society of Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janiero. This site is the largest landfill in the world, and is a virtual island of garbage  where the catadores, or garbage pickers, earn their living. Many of the workers originated from lower middle class circumstances, as did the artist himself. Muniz decided to use his photography and alternative-materials art concepts to create works that would be sold and the resulting profits donated back to this community.
His concept was to find models for the imagery, create scenes to photograph for use as artwork, and then use the garbage to form works of art. The process involved projecting a photographic image on the floor of his studio and having the workers and models themselves place the garbage in the light and shadow areas as he directed from a high platform above. Areas that needed shading would be tended to by Vik with dirt and a sifter. When the image was complete, he would then photograph it.
Some very interesting things happened. At a certain point of working with the catadores, a couple of them declared that they never wanted to go back to work at the land fill. A scene of a discussion between Vik and his wife and partner centered around having the workers in the studio. Were they giving them too much hope? Was it better to just let them stay in their own circumstances and not wish for things they couldn’t have. Was it cruel? It was an interesting process to watch, and a brilliant addition to the film because it is the age old controversy… who are we as individuals to decide what information others should or should not have? In the conversation Vik makes the assertion that hope is a good thing for anyone and could be a motivating factor in a transformation for some in the community.
As the project is finished, Muniz chooses a piece (based on “The Death of Marat” by David) to take to London for auction which features Tiao, a worker who has formed an association on behalf of the catadores. He takes Tiao to London to witness the auction at which the artwork sells for 39,000 pounds. It is an astonishing experience and a broadening of worldview that would affect Tiao for the rest of his life, in addition to the proceeds that would help with his community.
Back in Brazil, Muniz has an opening at the Rio de Janiero Museum of Modern Art for all the work he completed, and the workers can now come and see the whole body of work in which they were involved. The monetary result of this show is that over $250,000 is raised on their behalf.

In the end, the transformational process was distinct. Some of the workers declared that they could never go back, and some returned to their life, richer for the experience, and some, like Tiao, used the tools they had gained to expand help for the community. Especially poignant were some final scenes where the artist brought these museum quality pieces of art and presented each participant with a portrait of themselves to hang on the walls of their humble living circumstances. It was a fitting ending, and the contrast of setting was as impactful as the process of transforming garbage into beautiful works of art.
This film illustrates what is truly important about a successful work of art: the ability to deeply touch the emotion and wonder of the people it comes into contact with.

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