A contender for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, Waste Land tells the inspiring story of the “catadores”—self-appointed collectors of recyclable materials who comb through the trash of the largest garbage dump in the world, Brazil’s Jardim Gramacho. Director Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground, Countdown to Zero) follows contemporary artist Vik Muniz from Brooklyn to his native Brazil as he sets out to immortalize the catadores in artwork made from the garbage of Jardim Gramacho.
In addition to its Oscar nomination, Waste Land has received many honors including the Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, as well as Audience and Human Rights awards at the Berlin Film Festival. MovieMaker spoke with director Lucy Walker about the excitement of awards buzz and how the three-year experience of working with the catadores has changed her.
Samantha Husik (MM): How did you become involved in the project? What about the project appealed to you most?
Lucy Walker (LW): I conceived the project in collaboration with Vik Muniz. We had many long conversations before I had the idea to ask Vik about garbage. Once we discovered we were both obsessed with garbage, that was the light bulb moment. I saw the whole film immediately, including the possibility of Vik creating the portraits in collaboration with the catadores, then selling them at auction and giving the money back to the community.
I had visited a landfill 10 years ago and realized how fascinating it would be to film there. I had learned about the catadores who pick through garbage, and I knew it was the perfect project for us to film. And I had figured out that the best way I knew to make a film about an artist would be to film him in action on a project. So we hatched our plan and I insisted that he wait for a film crew to be with him before he began the project.
MM: You spent three years making this documentary. When you’re so intimately involved in someone’s life for so long, how do you maintain your objectivity when shooting a project?
LW: I never have a problem maintaining the distance, the interest. I guess I only get involved with projects that are so intensely interesting—or, in this case, an artist who is so compelling that even today I am still fascinated.
MM: Have you become more environmentally conscious as a result of making this film?
LW: Yes. You can’t help but become more aware of your garbage when you spend time with all the garbage in a landfill. And if I ever think about being lazy and not recycling an item, and I am just about to throw it into the trash instead of the recycling, I hear in my head the voice of Valter, who died when we were making the film, but is well-remembered because he had lots of great rhyming catchphrases to keep everyone cheered along. He used to say “99 is not 100” by which he means everything we do is important and can make all the difference—one can that we recycle or one person we invite to see the movie.
MM: Moby wrote the music for Waste Land. Music is an important part of filmmaking but doesn’t seem to get as much attention in nonfiction moviemaking. How can the right music affect a documentary?
LW: I believe that music is the heart of the emotional experience of watching a movie, and I think Moby has written some of the best film music ever. Thanks to Moby’s music in Waste Land, the audience is able to open up emotionally, to laugh and cry and let themselves go. I want to make documentaries that have the same—if not more—emotional impact as fiction films, and are crafted to the utmost highest standards. I don’t think we need to make documentaries look shoddy or poorly-shot anymore, because equipment is so much more affordable.
MM: Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. What does this nomination mean to you? What do you think it means to the catadores in the film?
LW: Thank you! For me the very best part of being nominated is that it throws a tremendous spotlight on the catadores, the outrageously impressive stars of the documentary, who pick through the garbage for recyclable materials and are true unsung environmental heroes. Ordinarily they suffer persecution and prejudice and worse, and this most prestigious honor is the perfect antidote for that sad state of affairs. And because of this nomination, more audience members around the world will be encouraged to see the film and to meet these people who they would not otherwise meet, and I guarantee that they will be utterly charmed and moved by their story.
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