Thursday, December 1, 2011

A Waste of a Good Documentary

A couple of weeks back the shortlist of documentary contenders for the upcoming Academy Awards was released. As usual, there were a whole lot of cries of "snub!" "out of touch!" "what were they thinking?" and so forth. Granted, as is the case every year, the Academy's documentary branch did indeed leave off some of the year's most noteworthy titles: Asif Kapadia's sublime beyond the grave narrative Senna, and Steve James' The Interrupters (which I keep, rather unfortunately, confusing with The Inbetweeners) were the top titles on most people's venomous pens. Personally, I was more upset at the absence of Tristan Patterson's evocative slacker skater flick, Dragonslayer (review here), but was certainly pleased to see Wim Wender's 3D dance documentary, Pina, shortlisted and can only hope it makes the final five when announced early next year.

Still, I couldn't help but wonder if all the people complaining about the lack of their favourite documentary titles had actually bothered to see the shortlisted titles. I raise this question because when last year's documentary shortlist was announced I had never heard of Lucy Walker's Waste Land other than glancing upon it in the Melbourne International Film Festival guide. The film, which follows an artist (Vik Muniz) who aims to make art out of very literal garbage in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, founds its way onto the Academy's nomination ballot and today receives a limited release in Australia, a release that most assuredly would not have eventuated if not for the Academy Award nomination that many would have gladly shoved aside, I'm sure, for something like Werner Herzog's hipster National Geographic nonsense, Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The film is indeed as good as it's small, but heavy, awards cabinet would suggest. A winner at both the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, Waste Land succeeds at being both a rousing heartwarming tale of the down and out rising and taking control of their lives, whilst also being a fascinating look at the creation of art and whether one man's art can indeed change a person's life other than their own. Essentially split into two distinct halves, Waste Land begins by following Muniz as he navigates the landfills of Rio to find suitable subjects for his large canvas works of art. He comes across many folks that could be easily be passed off as merely "characters", but who prove the artist's faith in them was warranted by being exceptionally entertaining and also dramatically potent. The second half then moves away from the litter-strewn tip and follows these workers as they collaborate with Muniz to create the art that they are both skeptical and hopeful about.

It's a sublime portrait (to use an artistry term) of resolve, but never shies away from the at times crippling sadness that comes with people who have found themselves, through one tragedy or another, working amidst the rubbished mountains of the landfill. Your face's smile reflex will be on high alert during the final act as the toils of their labour come to fruition. Perhaps Muniz's process of wanting to show beauty in garbage is too overt and anybody with a particularly weak tolerance for dripping, slimy, putrid rubbish won't be able to handle some of the ickier sequences, but there's little denying that Waste Land manages to succeed in proving Muniz's hypothesis. No matter how big or how little, Muniz's art has indeed changed the lives of everybody it touched and watching it happen is a beauty to behold, to matter how ugly it is in the interim. Despite the film's dingy setting, Lucy Walker and her co-director Karen Hartley have made Waste Land look and sound as vibrant as possible. Music by Moby is an interesting decision, but works to highlight the more potent sequences without being manipulative, but thankfully Walker never mistakes who the film is about and always allows its eclectic cast to shine. Waste Land is a wonderful documentary and one that was so very deserving of its Oscar nomination. B+

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