Sundance environmental films: materials, waste, and pollution

If you regularly recycle household materials, you’re likely moved by a spirit of doing something good for the environment. For many residents of the developing world, though, “recycling” materials thrown out by others is an act of survival. There’s likely no better place to witness this dynamic than Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill, and photographer Vik Muniz made the landfill, and the catadores that reclaim materials from it, the subject of a series of photographs (shown as a part of his The Beautiful Earth exhibit).

On Sunday, January 24th, the film WASTE LAND, which chronicles Muniz’s trip to Jardim Gramacho, premieres at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. A competitor in this year’s World Cinema Documentary Competition, Lucy Walker’s film follows Muniz from the project’s conception to completion… and provides the viewer with “stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the dignity that can be found in personal determination.”

Films exploring the materials we use, as well as the waste and pollution produced by that use, have made regular appearances at Sundance. In recent years, documentaries on such topics include:

  • NO IMPACT MAN (2009): Could you spend a year living with toilet paper? Take-out? A car? Manhattan resident Colin Beavan and family did just that, and the film NO IMPACT MAN documents this challenge, as well as the reaction others had to the Beavan family’s radical experiment with living lightly on the Earth.
  • BIG RIVER MAN (2009): How can a single person bring attention to global water pollution? Slovenian endurance swimmer Martin Strel’s answer was to swim some of the world’s great rivers, including the Mississippi, the Danube, and the Yangtze. John Maringouin’s documentary follows Strel as he attempts the Amazon, and shows the physical and psychological strain the swimmer endures as he attempts this Herculean feat.
  • BLUE VINYL (2002): This “toxic comedy” digs into the facts about polyvinyl chloride (PVC), “America’s most popular plastic.” Filmmakers Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold travel the world to learn more about this ubiquitous material, and its effects on human health and the environment.

If you get a chance to see one of the four screenings of WASTE LAND, let us know what you thought about it.

Please note: the video above is not from WASTE LAND… a trailer isn’t yet available.