Lucy Walker’s documentary Waste Land follows Brooklyn-based Brazilian artist Vik Muniz and a group of “catadores”, garbage pickers from Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho dump (the world’s largest), as they produce a daring and inspirational social art project under Muniz’s direction. As the film shatters assumptions the artists have about Rio’s poor, it raises ethical questions about the impact of entering into their lives.
Walker, also the director of the documentaries Countdown to Zero and Blindsight, talked with Rooftop Films about Waste Land ahead of her Rooftop Film Summer Series screening.
Rooftop Films: Where did the idea for this project and documentary come from?
Lucy Walker, director of Waste Land: From myself and Vik Muniz. We liked each other’s work and had a couple of very organic, loose, open-ended conversations about how we might collaborate, whether there might be a movie and if so what it would be.
RF: What did you think about the idea that this art project could change the pickers’ lives?
LW: I wasn’t sure it would work, but I was thinking about the film and knew that even if that idea was disproved there’d be an interesting movie regardless. I wanted there to be a chance that it would fail. I wanted this to be the Everest of art projects, or social theses. I knew we might not “summit” or succeed, just as with my previous film Blindsight (about a group of blind Tibetan children who attempt to climb Mount Everest).
RF: You were part of a group of artists that was swooping in with the potential of altering their lives of the pickers in a major way. Did you feel responsible for the pickers?
LW: All the time! I worry about these things constantly, and to this day and into the future… Fortunately I truly believe something beautiful and positive happened here in this project though.
RF: Was it envisioned as a documentary about the pickers, even before you knew who they were?
LW: Yes, definitely. The finished film is exactly what I was hoping it would be or pre-visualized it as.
RF: Was there anything else that surprised you about the pickers?
LW: Everything! From how well they dressed – they have such a cool look – to how it’s possible to pick up Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ when you never went to school and have been working in a landfill since the age of 11, and not just read it but make the most strikingly insightful comparisons between 16th century Florence and 21st century Rio, with the rival favelas with private fortifications — I went to Oxford and studied literature for undergraduate degree and have never heard anyone make such brilliant comments about that book.
RF: Did you think about any other movies about artists — or even movies about garbage when you were making Waste Land?
LW: Artists: The Quince Tree Sun, and garbage: Ilha das Flores (Isle of Flowers).
RF: For our aspiring documentary filmmaker readers, can you tell us how you got started making documentaries?
LW: I was practicing with my first video camera and really enjoyed filming my friends. For years when I was living in New York and attending NYU graduate film school and moonlighting as a DJ I would film my friends who were musicians and artists on the downtown scene here. I ultimately decided that it wasn’t sufficiently focussed as a film to warrant all the work of editing and finishing it, but I learned a lot about what makes interesting footage, which is the most important thing of all I think. I also watched films like Streetwise and Hoop Dreams and fell in love with the idea that the stories of real people could be even more emotionally compelling than dramatic fiction films if the filmmakers were genius and patient enough to gain enough trust and intimate access.
RF: What are you working on next?
LW: A very hush-hush top-secret, even more dangerous one! I seem to specialize in challenges, but this would top that. Also, a day off. I finished two films at the beginning of the year – both Waste Land and Countdown to Zero premiered at Sundance – and I’m still recovering from all that hard work!
Keep up with the Rooftop Films Summer Series on Twitter @rooftopfilms.