Tue March 15, 2011
Monkey See

DVD Picks: 'Waste Land'

Every week lots of films make their way onto video, and we turn to Bob Mondello to tell us about the cream of the cinematic crop. This week, Bob's recommending a film that was just up for an Academy Award – the documentary Waste Land.

In a sprawling landfill in Brazil, thousands of catadores — trash-pickers — scramble over freshly arrived truckloads of garbage through much of Waste Land. They're sorting the trash into recyclables for about $20 a day, barely enough to live on, even in the dump.

Hard to believe both the workers and the trash they recycle will be the raw material for a monumental art project. But Brooklyn-based, Brazilian-born artist Vic Muniz wanted to change the lives of a group of people with the same material they deal with every day.

He took photos of the trash-pickers posed in imitation of famous artworks — the 1793 painting "The Death of Marat," for instance — and then he projected the photos from a scaffold, enlarging them to the size of a basketball court, and had the workers fill in the magnified outlines with recycled trash.

The result? A second set of photos, which sold at art auctions for tens of thousands of dollars each, all used to benefit the catadores. Worth nearly as much is the vibrant portrait that emerges of the workers and of their lives. The one who posed as Marat remembers pulling a copy of Machiavelli's The Prince from a pile of garbage and noting how much the fiefdoms of medieval Florence had in common with the gangs in present day Brazil.

Though this is obviously a movie with messages — about poverty, recycling, the social impact of art — it doesn't come across as a guilt trip. That said, the filmmakers know you're likely to look at paper and plastic differently once you've see it, so they've made it possible for you to avoid recycling altogether, by making Waste Land available both through streaming and as a digital download. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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