Saturday, March 19, 2011


Waste not, want not

By Edward Copeland
With Waste Land hitting DVD earlier this week, I finally was able to see all five documentaries that were in contention for the 2010 Oscar for documentary feature. It doesn't happen often, but the Academy did select the best one, Inside Job, to receive its statuette. However, though Waste Land is fine, at least three other films that made the documentary short list as well as others that didn't even make the cut, deserved a spot in the final five more than Waste Land.

I also felt the same way about Oscar nominee GasLand, but it's even more glaring in the case of Waste Land. The Academy's most unforgivable omission from its own shortlist was The Tillman Story but others from its own list more deserving of a spot in the final five that I've seen were Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, The Lottery and William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. That's not even taking into account the wonderful documentaries I've seen that weren't shortlisted such as Casino Jack & The United States of Money, Countdown to Zero and Marwencol or ones I've not seen but heard great things about such as Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work or Last Train Home.

In what appeared to be a recurring theme in 2010 documentaries, Waste Land focuses on an artist, in this case Vik Muniz, a Brazilian native who found success after moving to New York, who returns to his homeland to photograph the "catadores," people who earn a living picking recyclables out of the world's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located outside Rio de Janeiro.

His original plan just to make art of these people covered in this garbage changes as he gets to know them and recognizes the squalor of their lives and how lucky he is that he was able to avoid this life for himself. Soon, they are collaborating on a project that he promises when it sells, he will give them the proceeds to try to improve their situation any way they wish. In the process, both the pickers and the artist learn something about art.

It reminded me in one moment of the silliness of the art world that Banksy tweaked in Exit Through the Gift Shop when one of the catadores, Tiaõ, who is president of a co-operative designed to improve the lives of his fellow pickers, tells Muniz that it's crazy they've accomplished art out of waste and Muniz replies that the people who would pay that much for it, they are the crazy ones.

Directed by Lucy Walker (who directed the superior Countdown to Zero) and co-directed by Karen Harley and João Jardim, Waste Land isn't a bad documentary, but 2010 overflowed with so many superlative examples of nonfiction films, that the bar was set even higher and it just didn't quite reach it.

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