Thursday, February 17, 2011

Waste Land

WASTE LAND                             B+
Brazil  Great Britain  (99 mi)  2010  d:  Lucy Walker  co-directors:  Karen Haley and João Jardim

Now Suzanne takes your hand
And she leads you to the river
She is wearing rags and feathers
From Salvation Army counters
And the sun pours down like honey
On our lady of the harbour
And she shows you where to look
Among the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror

And you want to travel with her
And you want to travel blind
And you know that you can trust her
For she's touched your perfect body
with her mind

Suzanne, (Third verse), Leonard Cohen, 1966

WASTE LAND is another film that asks the question just what is art?  But in this case, the person asking is already an established commercial artist, Vik Muniz, a Brazilian-born visual artist living in New York, claiming his works are the highest selling art coming out of Brazil.  What’s unique about his methods is incorporating natural, everyday items onto the canvas, such as thread, wire, string, paper, peanut butter and jelly, or sugar, where his theory is that if your vantage point is up close, it looks like a jumbled mess, becoming beautiful from a distance, where it becomes something unimaginable.  He describes his hometown of Sao Paolo in the same manner, as the impoverished streets can be harsh and cruel, but if seen from a great distance, such as the aerial view from an incoming airplane or seen from a high vista, it has a breathtaking beauty.  Initially he gets the idea to visit the Jardim Gramacho dump, which is the world’s largest landfill, a vast stretch of undeveloped land that accepts 70 % of Rio de Janeiro’s garbage, adding all of the neighboring suburbs.  Until you get up close, you have no idea just how immense this is, as it is a community in itself due to the steady stream of some three thousand workers, known as catadores, many of whom live in a shanty village onsite, who pick through the garbage for reusable, recycled products which they can sell, eking out a barest minimum of a living.  Muniz brings his camera and introduces himself to dozens of the workers, starting at first by taking their picture and then narrowing his focus to a half a dozen subjects that interest him.    

First and foremost is Tiaõ, an ambitious young man who aspires to build a coalition of workers to help improve their living conditions while also becoming the point man leading demonstrations against the mayor and the city for dragging their feet and refusing to implement a citywide recycling program, as promised.  Suelem is an attractive 18-year old with a strikingly good looking face, but she has two children living with her sister away from the dump that she misses, so she periodically leaves the dump shantytown to visit them in a different dilapidated shack nearby that looks just the same, except they’re wired for a TV.  Isis is another attractive young woman with man problems, while Magna (truly the most interesting to me) is more mature, with a world weary expression on her face, as if she’s somehow capable of surviving some of the worst battles, while Irmã is the eldest and the woman who’s probably worked there the longest.  All live on the premises and are slowly brought into Vik’s world, as he has a large studio nearby where he takes the photographs, enlarges them to huge, places them on the ground, and then embellishes them with products found in the landfill, a tedious process that includes the involvement of the catadores themselves, who get a personalized taste of the high end art world, all startled by how it looks from a proper distance.  What’s interesting is the discussion about what happens next, as Vik’s wife comes to visit and she’s quite demonstrative about how taking responsibility for their lives is beyond any concept of art, as they’re being introduced unto a brand new world with no instructions on how to navigate their way through, claiming they are all fragile and vulnerable.  But Vik is not interested in negativity and in no short order rejects his wife’s ideas completely, claiming even if just for a moment if they could live outside the landfill for a few precious weeks and see how the rest of the world operates, that in itself would be a life altering experience equivalent to the transforming power of art. 

Next thing you know, Tiaõ is whisked off to London where his photograph will be the first one auctioned in a high end art exhibit, right next to works of Andy Warhol.  This is where the unique power of the film becomes evident, as this is truly a transforming experience, as never in his wildest dreams did Tiaõ ever imagine himself in this position, as the photograph sold for $50,000.  When the rest of the crew gets all dressed up walking out of their shanty huts, it’s like they’re going to a wedding, but instead it’s to the opening night of Vik’s gallery opening in Rio de Janeiro featuring photographs of them, where they are the living subjects of the art hanging on the walls.  Clearly they are moved by the power of the moment, which goes beyond proud or surprised, or even humbled.  They are in shock at the sheer audacity of the idea itself, how something they could never conceive was being valued and appreciated by others.  Their emotional lives are simply shattered and overwhelmed by it all, where the exhibit itself is like a personal gift and tribute to them.  While it’s evident Vik identifies with them all, something that probably took him by surprise, as he could easily have slid into this same kind of demoralizing poverty as a young kid.  Still, the story about the artworks themselves is nothing new, as art is constantly used to taking on new faces and reaching out into unthinkable horizons.  What’s clearly unique, surprising even the artist himself, is the notion of living art, something like living theater, where the subjects themselves interact with the artist and the audience in unanticipated ways, where there’s a personal investment in each one, initially thought of only in dollars and cents, but it ends up being the collaborative shared emotional life altering transformation the artist and filmmaker were searching for all along.    

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