Watching Waste Land was, if nothing else, a conflicting experience. While the movie was enjoyable to watch, the themes that are explored are far from light-hearted. With such an interesting creative process and heavy subject matter involved in the artist’s work, I was left unsure of what to think about the pickers, artist and documentarians involved in the story.
As with all documentaries, it is difficult to tell how much of the footage has been cut and manipulated for the sake of keeping the viewer interested (a feat at which this movie is exceedingly successful). Because of the quick and upbeat editing of the movie, it is easy to forget that the footage is shot over a long period of time. Not everything happens so quickly as the audience experiences it, as all of the mundane stuff in between has been filtered out for the sake of time. What is left over is not a complete record of the events that took place, but a story that has been constructed out of elements carefully selected by the filmmakers to fabricate a continuous and easy to follow plot line.
Regardless of exactly how true Waste Land is in its depiction of the lives of the pickers, one thing that resonates noticeably throughout the film is Vik Muniz’s own description of art and life that he discusses with his chosen pickers (picker posse?).With his group gathered together, Muniz discusses the way people view art in a gallery, by zooming in and out, and how stepping back and viewing a painting as a whole reveals a chaotic bigger picture while leaning in gives the viewer insight into its parts. Not only do his portraits of people made from recyclable materials definitely reflect this concept as he explained it, but this scene also seems to have been placed in the film specifically as a metaphor to the story of the pickers. This is a view that seems to be forced onto the audience, and the viewer must trust that the filmmakers have “zoomed in,” and depicted the pickers’ lives in a way that truly helps outsiders to understand their lifestyle. The filmmakers seem to be trying their hardest to direct the audience to believe that they are fully experiencing the story in an up close and personal fashion, but because the implication that they are making in this scene is so frank, it is difficult not to wonder if one should just take their world for it or if it has been placed there as a way to build conviction in the audience.
The memory of that scene kept coming back to me as I watched the rest of the movie, noticing a few things that made me wonder about the true motivations of the documentarians. While I am fairly certain that they all mean well, and very certain that such a sizeable donation was indeed very good for the Pickers’ Association, one thing that I noticed in addition to this was the exposition of the pickers, which seemed to be above and beyond the “normal” amount of exposition that takes place in a documentary film. While the film was enjoyable, and I would say that the overall effect is far more positive than negative, it continually begs the question of whether or not it is too exploitative. While all documentaries are at least to a degree exploiting its subject(s), something about this movie made me a bit uncomfortable regarding the way that the filmmakers seemed to be using the pickers purely as a tool for an interesting story. In part, this feeling arose from an overall vibe that made me feel as if the film was serving a purpose mainly to the makers of the documentary. Although the Pickers’ Association as well as the individuals involved of course benefitted from the sale of the art works, they were still required to go back to their lives in the landfill – this in contrast to the filmmakers, who would have had the ability to leave the landfill at will. The degree to which the people featured in the documentary seemed to be used like clinical study subjects begs the question of whether these people really were subjects of beautiful art or if they were simply treated as objects of interest to be picked up and examined for as long as they hold interest to the audience, only to once again be cast away like garbage? I do not feel that the actions of the artist and documentarians are wrong in and of themselves – the auction money gained from the artworks produced is of course a wonderful thing to present to the facility, but the way that the characters in the movie are presented causes me to question the filmmakers’ motives. Do they really care about the people, or are they only using them for their interesting and “exotic” backstories? Is it just another exhibition of poverty to be viewed with interest but ultimately ignored by the higher classes? The fact that the art was being sold to a bunch of rich people who are essentially benefiting from the toiling of the pickers could easily be seen as another way that these people are being treated as objects themselves. It is as if they are merely a spectacle for luckier people such as ourselves to observe through the eyes of director Lucy Walker and artist Vik Muniz.
I don’t like ending on such a critical note, however. I would like to note that I truly enjoyed the film despite its exploitative undertones. Walker and company obviously put together an extremely compelling bit of journalism that probably does deserve all of the awards it has garnered.