Facing a formidable field of competitors for the best documentary Academy Award, Walker and the film itself made a convincing case for consideration among the top three contenders. Waste Land focuses on Rio de Janeiro’s community of catadores, waste recyclers who live and work in the slum adjacent to the Jardim Gramacho landfill, following Brazilian artist Vik Muniz from his studio in Brooklyn to the garbage dump for an ambitious project. An internationally recognized photographer who frequently employs non-traditional materials, Munoz’s goal at Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest trash disposal facility, was to work with catadores from the waste pickers’ association known as ACAMJG to create large-scale portraits composed primarily of re-purposed solid waste.
During a Q&A after the screening, Walker revealed she’d been discussing a potential documentary about artists’ creative processes with Muniz, so when he mentioned the Rio project, “The alarms all went off, the lights started flashing: ‘Alert, alert, next film ahead,’” Walker joked.
The art project proved to be an inspirational experience for six ACAMJG members who posed for Muniz’s photographs and then participated in creating their own portraits, particularly charismatic association president Tiao Santos. Walker read aloud from a recent email from Tiao, who commented: “Even if we don’t get the Oscar it will already be a victory for all of us pickers,” just for the film to be considered for the award. “It’s truly transformational, life-changing stuff,” Walker observed. “I keep thinking this is maybe the best thing I’ve ever done as a human being,” not just as a filmmaker she said.
Much of the film’s success is attributable to Walker’s fluid filmmaking style. “I find it really intuitive making documentaries – I love it,” she said when asked about her creative process. “If it’s an interesting subject, then something interesting is going to happen.”
Waste Land has racked up an impressive awards record on the international festival circuit, beginning with the 2010 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary; it then went on to win the Berlin Film Festival’s Panorama Audience Award and the IDA Best Documentary prize, among numerous other plaudits. The filmmakers have donated an estimated $100,000 in prize winnings to ACAMJG, which has also benefited from sales of Muniz’s original artworks featuring Tiao and other association members.
While most awards-race observers agree that the competition in the Oscar documentary category is shaping up as a showdown between Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s complex, powerful and often infuriating account of the 2008 economic collapse, and Exit Through the Gift Shop, the entertaining outsider doc about street art by renowned yet anonymous British graffiti artist Banksy, they should not overlook Waste Land as a strong contender.
The film’s roster of audience awards is one significant indicator, demonstrating that the doc has popular appeal, abundant humanistic humor and inspirational characters – factors that are not among the top strengths of the other leading nominees -- and its sympathetic treatment of social justice issues also could hit a sweet spot for Academy voters.
The best documentary race may be more wide open than handicappers expect: Waste Land offers a compelling alternative to the other front-runners.
[Photo of Lucy Walker by Getty.]
Contact Justin Lowe via Twitter @cinemaplanet