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Waste Land's Dangerous Landfill

Prolific documentarian Lucy Walker and artist Vik Muniz create moving art from the largest and most dangerous landfill in the world in their new work, Wasteland.



"The moment when one thing turns into another is the most beautiful moment. A combination of sounds turns into music. And that applies to everything." 

Vik Muniz


What kind of filmmaker has the guts to follow climbers up Mt. Everest (Blindsight), confront a bunch of nuclear arms specialists about nuclear war (Countdown to Zero), follow Amish teens as they go absolutely wild during their 16th year (Devil's Playground), and most recently, make a film in the largest and most dangerous landfill in the world? Her name is Lucy Walker, and she's won prizes and awards for taking such brave risks.


Her latest film, Wasteland, executive produced by City of God's Fernando Meirelles and with a score by Moby, follows internationally renowned artist Vik Muniz as he embarks on his biggest work yet. Muniz sets out to go to Rio de Janeiro to make art with the people working in the biggest landfill in the world, using materials found in the landfill. The people who work in the landfill, the “catadores,” or pickers, spend their days sorting through the trash and finding items that can be recycled. Muniz photographs the workers in the landfill, and then recreates the photograph; using materials found in the landfill.


These photographs have shown at the biggest museums and auctions around the world, and sell for high prices. All the money has gone back directly into the community of people there. By collaborating, Muniz and Walker have shined a flashlight on a beautiful group of people working in the dirtiest place in the world. 


Lucy Walker


Tribeca: How did you meet Vik Muniz and what made you choose to make a film about his project?


Lucy Walker: I met Vik through our co-producer Peter Martin. The whole project was really a collaboration between the producer, Vik, and myself and we thought if we were going to make a film together, what film could it be? We all wanted to work with each other. I have a lot of conversations with a lot of people about a lot of projects and I guess I just don’t ever get involved with something unless I really think its going to be great. Because I think with documentaries it doesn’t really matter how brilliant you are—unless you have a brilliant subject it’s just a world of pain. And if you have the right subject, it’s a world of pain, but it's worth it. 


Each film starts off with a question, and you know if you need to find out the answer to the question then you should go forward. Vik wondering if he could change people’s lives using art was just such an interesting question, so I knew this world was going to be amazing. I learned about “catadores” ten years ago when I was at NYU. I met this woman, Robin, who is the NYC dept of sanitation, sort of artist in residence. She’s this academic who has been working in garbage and teaches a graduate seminar at NYU. She’s just a really interesting thinker and she had this class in garbage.


She took me to Freshkill’s landfill in Staten Island and I had this awful moment when I thought, “My god, everything I’ve ever thrown away didn’t vanish at all and how could I not have been more conscious of that?” It’s one of those things where you think you’ve been especially conscious, like “I recycle!” and of course I did because it was illegal not to but really being conscious of reducing waste... I was just looking at this again—the US produces 30% of the world’s waste and 90% of it could be recycled. Only 34% is and that is just a massive, massive amount. And when, in the movie you get that lecture from Walter, the kind of old guy about how “99 is not 100” and about how much you could be saving—I was thinking that every time you recycle a bag of paper you could be saving 17 trees for example. It’s amazing. So that had been a really powerful idea so that was sort of dormant within me.


Tribeca: What was it like shooting in Brazil?


Lucy Walker: I loved it. Portuguese is hard but I’m actually quite used to not speaking the language because I made my previous film in Tibetan. And even in my Amish film, a lot of the time the kids were speaking Pennsylvania Dutch and to some extent you are thinking about so many things when you’re working and sometimes your questions you don’t even need—you don’t need to understand the answers to ask the questions. You do sometimes and some of your questions will really probe and follow-up depending on what’s being said but you can figure out a lot. I can also understand more than I can speak. And also, you’ve got so much information that filtering it out to certain extent is actually not a bad thing. You’re thinking about the shots, you’re thinking about what you’re doing next—you’re thinking about what you have to tell people to do. There were other times that we had Brazilian crew that were doing stuff, too.

Tribeca: The film is very moving. I can’t imagine how anyone could leave without feeling deeply moved. A lot of documentaries can be dry but this one is certainly surprising and moving.


Lucy Walker: I agree—I was in Pennsylvania yesterday, in Philadelphia and there were a lot of black women in the audience saying, “these women in the film—I know women like that.” And I was just in Mexico over the weekend. There were a lot of ordinary people in the audience and a lot of filmmakers as well but they were kissing me, hugging me, over and over, giving me necklaces—a lot of the students and young women. They were amazing beautiful necklaces and I didn’t know what to do; I didn’t want to take them! I felt sort of bad—I didn’t want to take their beautiful necklaces because they looked its beautiful on them but it was really amazingly touching. A lot of people have said, “I work with poor people and I never see poor people in films” and this is the dignity of the poor people I know. That really makes it all worthwhile. Yesterday this one woman was saying, “you have all of these women characters—I know women that are dealing with issues like this.” And it sounds stupid but it was so instinctive for me to put that in. The response has been so magical.




Tribeca: The characters are all such beautiful people. They are all such beautiful an illuminated people. They aren’t grumpy about working in trash all the time. They are brilliant. Do you feel like Wasteland has provoked something different than your other films?


Lucy Walker: I didn’t set out to make anything uplifting—I just set out with an innocent question and if it had all gone south I would have faithfully had to build a story around that. I didn’t need it to be uplifting but it’s interesting because I think it is uplifting. I didn’t set out to find an uplifting story, but what a joy when it is. And how wonderful it is when we are able to look at the challenges that people are facing in their lives because it is so hard to contemplate what they have to endure every day without your heart breaking because once you get a sense of what its like walking in those shoes, its just…


Tribeca: The film does a really good job of showing what it’s like to walk in their shoes.


Lucy Walker: As a filmmaker that’s the most powerful thing that you can give. Whether that’s fiction or nonfiction—to different effect but it’s so amazing to try and really experience.


Tribeca: So, you’ve now shot in a landfill in Brazil, in Tibet on Mt. Everest, and I’m sure some other really intense places, and I’m curious, what is that like for you as a female director?


Lucy Walker: I tell you what, on this movie, of all my movies—the crew that I worked with were awesome. At one point I was thinking, it’s like me and my football team! And I could not have made this film without them.


Wasteland opens at the Angelika this Friday, October 29. Walker and Muniz will appear for a Q&A this weekend. Keep up with the film on Facebook



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