Waste Landbegins as if it’s just another dryly flattering documentary about a big-time artist. We see Vik Muniz in a Brazilian TV interview, we hear his rags-to-riches story, we get an explanation of why he matters, and so on. But director Lucy Walker quickly gets to the goods: the gigantic Jardim Gramacho landfill outside of Rio de Janeiro and the resilient catadores who collect recyclables amid the filth and live in the nearby favela. The Brazilian-born, Brooklyn-based Muniz goes there not only to photograph the pickers in their element; he enlists them to build giant garbage collages based on the photos, which are then shot in large format. So is the film another Northern Hemisphere exploitation of the harshness of Brazil’s underbelly? Hardly. Muniz, who grew up poor, is fully aware of the implications and potential contradictions of the project. And Walker—perhaps known best for her Amish rumspringa doc, The Devil’s Playground—seems as engrossed by the ethical balancing act as she is by the art itself. In the end, Muniz’s most useful talent is his ability to explain why he’s there. Although the project has elements of anthropology and philanthropy and socio-political commentary, he’s essentially an ambassador for art. Let’s make something together, he urges, not necessarily because it will change you, but because you deserve the opportunity as much as anybody.
WASTE LAND SCREENS AT 8 P.M. THURSDAY, NOV. 18 AT THE HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN’S RING AUDITORIUM, 7TH ST. AND INDEPENDENCE AVE. SW. FREE. (202) 633-4674.