Topically similar to Garbage Dreams but thematically similar to Born into Brothels, Lucy Walker's endearing Waste Land is a humble, tender tribute to the millions of people we walk by daily but avoid looking in the eye. In the U.S., as in Brazil and maybe every other developed nation, an undercurrent of classism wreaks havoc on the social fabric. We marginalize and generalize about the groups below us on the social ladder, never considering to recognize the ambitions and talents of the individuals who comprise those groups. If a picture is worth a thousand words, Vik Muniz' portraits of workers in the world's largest landfill (Jardim Gramacho, outside Rio de Janeiro) tell a timeless story of human ambition, cooperation, innovation, beauty, and creativity.
That's pretty flowery language applied to a film set amongst mountains of rotting garbage, but it's there if you look for it - and you don't have to look too hard. These portraits, which are photos of garbage arranged to represent photos (you might have to see it to understand it), are astounding artistic achievements even without considering the subjects of the photos, the team of people involved in constructing the portraits, or the materials from which they are composed. When all of that is evaluated as well, it's not surprising to learn that the "Pictures of Garbage" (double entendre intended) collection broke attendance records at modern art museums around the world.
On the surface, the motive behind Muniz' project (to "change lives") appeared naive, even foolish. This is partly because he had the complete wrong impression of the people who worked at Jardim Gramacho, and partly because no good deed goes unpunished, and whatever sacrifices Muniz was willing to make (in this case, his marriage) were not necessarily going to guarantee a better life for the civil servants who provide what amounts to indentured labor in picking recycled materials out of the landfill.
But Muniz was successful, and director Lucy Walker was successful (for the second time in two years), because both of them realized that often the most effective way to lift someone up is to embrace who they are, where they are, before finding a way to tap into the positive aspects of their individual character. It's probably not a coincidence that the subjects chosen by Muniz for this particular project are quite attractive by most standards, but if he has shown anything, it's that even beautiful people might not recognize their beauty until someone shows it to them.