Lucy Walker's life-affirming film is by turns heartbreaking, uplifting and never less than captivating.
'I will show you fear in a handful of dust,' wrote T S Eliot in his 1922 poem 'The Waste Land'. And while Lucy Walker's enlightening documentary shares its title with Eliot's masterpiece of disillusionment (discounting the definite article anyway), it’s not fear her subjects find in handfuls of dust but self-respect, hope and a means of living a more dignified life.
They are 'catadores', or rubbish pickers; impoverished manual workers who scurry tirelessly across great mountains of rotting waste at Rio de Janeiro's monstrous Jardim Gramacho landfill site looking for recyclable material to sell on.
Nominated for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar, the film follows Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz over three years as he recruits a group of catadores to create a series of giant mosaic portraits using the bottles, plastics and paper thrown away by Rio’s 11 million inhabitants.
Among them are Tiao, the group’s charismatic leader; Zumbi, a sad-eyed union member who dreams of starting a library; and Irma, a trained chef who somehow whips up tasty-looking beef stews and potato salads from salvaged food scraps.
The hardscrabble life of the favelas has been well documented in films such as City of God and Linha de Passe and inevitably Waste Land touches on the litany of social problems faced by its subjects. But it’s abundantly clear these people are not looking for pity. They are independent, self-regarding and fiercely proud of their ability to earn an honest living without resorting to drug trafficking or prostitution.
Nevertheless, when the camera pans high over them as they crawl like ants across the mounded waste, the air filled with the whir of truck engines and the clanging of cascading cans and bottles, there’s little doubt as to how difficult their work is.
Lukas Moodysson featured a similar scene of poverty-stricken Filipinos sifting through landfill in his recent Babelian guilt-trip Mammoth. But with its heavy-handed symbolism and simplistic determinism Moodysson's film felt crudely drawn and ultimately somewhat condescending.
In eschewing this kind of reductive sensationalism in favour of something altogether subtler, nobler and, more importantly, authentic, Walker raises serious questions about the distribution of global wealth without recourse to hand wringing and in doing so leaves the humanity and dignity of her subjects intact.
After winning audience awards at both Sundance and Berlin and bagging an Oscar nomination this looks promising.
By turns heartbreaking, uplifting and never less than captivating.
Perhaps not life-changing but certainly life-affirming.