WASTE LAND turns garbage into gold

Lucy Walker’s Oscar nominated Waste Land is just another documentary about a Brazilian-American artist who travels to his birthland to create portraits of garbage pickers out of recyclable materials.

But it’s much more than that. Waste Land is about hope, collaboration, the environment, finding dignity through poverty, and the redeeming qualities of trash. (All those human spirit-y things I never like much under less felicitous circumstances—though I do like trash.)

After a special New York screening of the film—which is branching out into more cities this month—Walker talked about the creative process that led her from a landfill to an arthouse.

She said she originally gave a DVD to some prospective producers and told them, “It’s a film about this artist in a garbage dump.” “The look in their eyes!” Walker related. “I realized they’d taken the meeting by mistake!” She snuck out in horror, but amazingly, they glanced at the DVD and contacted her two weeks later. It turns out the Brazilian government provides a tax incentive for socially minded projects, so Walker ended up checking all the “poor people” and “art” boxes in the appropriate forms and getting a go-ahead!

It was also pretty easy to nab socially conscious Moby to score the film, apparently. As Walker recalled, “He was like, ‘A documentary about garbage in Portuguese? Sure. You don’t have to give me any money’.”

But that was the end of any potential glamour moments; on came the reality of documenting the plight of the garbage pickers. Did she witness a lot of health problems related to the trash heap? “They give you every vaccination ever invented,” Walker admitted. But she saw more in the way of accidents caused by the messy, tilting trash than she witnessed contagious diseases (though lung cancer is prevalent from the nasty fumes).

Fortunately, the work of the artist, Vic Muniz, and the spirit of one of the pickers’ leaders, Tiao, have proved transforming to that community. Not only have recycling laws been modernized in Brazil, according to Walker, but “there’s now this spirit of pride and dignity and not being ashamed-–challenging ostracism and prejudice. This feeling that people are understanding how cool they are.”

So is Walker herself! She also directed the recent anti-nuke doc Countdown To Zero, and gushed, “I just got nominated for Arms Control Person of the Year. Forget the Academy Award nomination,” she laughed. “Isn’t that amazing?” It’s certainly not garbage.

PS: Walker actually considered wearing a garbage bag to Sunday’s Oscar ceremony. But as fellow documentarian Morgan Spurlock told her at the special screening, “No, don’t! Even if it’s a Vera Wang garbage bag!” She’ll wear a dress.