Editor’s Note: Waste Land, an Academy Award nominee for Best Documentary Feature, will be screening Saturday, February 26, at 4:00 p.m., as part of DocuDay LA at the Writers Guild of America Theater in Beverly Hills, and at 5:10 p.m. at DocuDays NY at The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan.
Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Lucy Walker, director of Waste Land.
Synopsis: Waste Land follows renowned artist Vik Muniz as he journeys from his home in Brooklyn to his native Brazil and the world's largest garbage dump, Jardim Gramacho, located on the outskirts of Rio. There, he photographs an eclectic band of catadores--self-designated pickers of recyclable materials. Muniz's initial objective was to "paint" the catadores with garbage. However, his collaboration with them, as they recreate photographic images of themselves out of garbage, reveals both the dignity and despair of the catadores as they begin to re-imagine their lives. Waste Land offers stirring evidence of the transformative power of art and the alchemy of the human spirit.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Lucy Walker: One winter, when I was about 21 years old and studying fiction filmmaking in grad film school at New York University, I went to stay with some friends--a bunch of young artists and writers in Galway, Ireland. I arrived early on New Year's morning, and they were still asleep. I was very excited to try my new, first-ever video camera. I filmed everyone as they slowly woke up, made tea on the old potbelly stove, smoked cigarettes while they washed the dishes from the party the night before, and discussed the year ahead; it was a little bit Withnail and I, a little bit Slackers, and I was having a lot of fun filming it.
I really liked the footage, and when I went back to New York I showed it to my beloved directing professor at NYU, Boris Frumin, who compared these kids to Jesus and his disciples (and I could see what he meant!) and encouraged me in my feeling that this was just as interesting as the fictional scenes I was working on. After that, I started compulsively documenting the most interesting young artists and musicians and activists I could find in New York, intending to make a film about their struggles. I ultimately decided it wasn't a sufficiently focused documentary to finish, but I had learned a lot and gotten the bug.
IDA: What inspired you to make Waste Land?
LW: I had finished my previous film Blindsight and was looking for a follow-up project. I was introduced to the artist Vik Muniz and had some very open, organic conversations with him about how we might collaborate to make a documentary. I didn't want to make a film that looked at all his different works like a wide-ranging retrospective art show; brilliant as Vik's work is, that just doesn't offer a compelling through-line. I love films about art like Quince Tree Sun, which simply focus closely on the making of (or the failed attempt at making, in that film) one single painting.
I showed Vik Blindsight because I thought that one giant, challenging project would make the most dramatic structure for a documentary, as well as the most revealing approach to documenting his art-making process. And, like Erik Weihenmeyer going to Tibet to meet the blind Tibetan students and take them climbing in Blindsight, I challenged Vik to come up with the toughest possible project, one that would test him to the max as a human being, not simply as an artist.
I was stubbornly fixated on the fact that Vik had grown up in Brazil very poor, and had been shot in the leg, and the rich guy who had shot him paid him off with a lot of money, so he bought a plane ticket and came to the United States and pursued his dream of being an art photographer. I love how this story shows how fortune, or life, or fate, or the universe, or God, or whatever you call it, knocks us around in surprising ways. And it was pretty shocking to me how rich he was now; as an art photographer, he practically prints money. I thought it would be rich emotional territory for this rich, successful artist to confront the extreme poverty of his childhood.
I remembered watching Ilha Das Flores, a Brazilian movie about garbage, and learning about the catadores, or garbage pickers, from my friend Robin Nagle, who was in my triathlon club at NYU and taught an amazing seminar all about garbage. I had been so fascinated by Robin's work that I audited her class and went along to Freshkills landfill in Staten Island, and thought that it would make a genius location for a movie. This was long before Garbage Dreams, another beautiful documentary, so I guess I wasn't the only person to have this idea!
But this idea was perfect for us because Vik had previously done a series of works called Pictures of Junk\, which I found utterly captivating, and also a fantastic visual metaphor for how we can use documentary filmmaking to get very close to people who are normally so far away. For Vik to go to a landfill in Brazil and collaborate with the catadores there to make giant pieces of art seemed like the ideal story to follow to make a film, and once we had this idea, I stubbornly insisted on it, and then we had an amazing team to make it happen.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
LW: Like all my films, this was an awful challenge! Not least because we had to work in the garbage dump--with all the attendant horrors of smells, dangers and threat of violence because of the favelas being controlled by drug traffickers and garbage dumps being used to hide guns, drugs and even dead bodies. I was terrified, but I knew that if people were working there every day, and if Vik wanted to go and work with them, then I should be courageous enough to go along and film it, because it was sure to be absolutely fascinating material.
I had so many vaccinations before I went that I could barely move my arms when I arrived in Brazil! And then I made the mistake of watching Manda Bala and showing it to our team, so then we had to go get kidnap insurance! Fortunately we had the most wonderful producer in Angus Aynsley, who believed unwaveringly in my talent and in Vik's, and who 100 percent supported our collaboration from the very beginning, including setting up all our conversations and financing our initial trips until we were able to make a trailer and raise production funds from the Brazilian government. We also had brilliant collaborators across the board, and I am really proud of the craft elements in the film--the cinematography by Dudu Miranda, the editing by Pedro Kos and the music by Moby.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
LW: In a way, the film is exactly what I was hoping for. And the film is structured in a very chronological way. I was very strict about filming everything, from the very beginning of Vik's
thinking about the idea, so that the viewers can observe the absolute entire process from start to finish. And I insisted that nothing happened off-camera, so that we were filming things freshly as Vik was negotiating them.
This being my third documentary, I was happy that I had learned a lot of lessons the hard way and was able to implement them. In a way, the structure of Waste Land is very similar to those of Devil's Playground and Blindsight as I follow a fascinating group of characters on an extreme journey through a very inaccessible world (whether the Amish community or Mt. Everest or the garbage dump).
The moment when I knew it was going to work was when I got to Jardim Gramacho for the first time and saw Valter, the bard of the dump who uses rhymes to keep everyone going, cycling into the frame. His bicycle was covered in trinkets he had retrieved from the garbage. He honked a grubby eagle-horn and smiled at me. I couldn't believe how charming, funny, funkily dressed, eloquent and soulful he and the other catadores I met all were. And I knew that they would be the beating heart and soul of the movie.
IDA: As you've screened Waste Land--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
LW: I guess the biggest surprise is that you have an idea and it actually works! Sometimes you can work really hard on something and it doesn't come together, but in this case our expectations were way exceeded. The people we met blew us away. Vik's project turned out to be the most magically transformative one imaginable. And the emotional reaction that the audience can feel about that is so gratifying. We've had a few charmed festival screenings where I've looked across and it seems like everybody's faces are wet, and the whole theater is crying...and of course, I am too because it makes it all so worthwhile.
But it's a slow build: The opening is the first part of a bookend that doesn't pay off until the very end, and I can watch people scratching their heads and wondering if they're in the right theater. But then when the ending does finally roll around, it really does pay off! Everybody who worked on the film could relate to having come through personal challenges where we felt our lives were "in the garbage," and that is a bond shared by the people in the movie, the people who made the movie, and now the people watching the movie.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
LW: So many! To name just a couple, Hoop Dreams and Streetwise are two films I point to as being especially influential when I was starting out wanting to make vérité films about young people. I couldn't believe the twists and turns of fate in Hoop Dreams--and I think Waste Land for me is really about these big forces that act on our lives, the moments when lives dramatically shift before our eyes.
Streetwise fascinated me because of the amazing trust and access the filmmakers achieved with the homeless young people in the movie. I just couldn't believe that the filmmakers were in the room during such intimate scenes, such as 14-year-olds falling in love or returning home or even dying, and it became the benchmark to aspire to in my own films.
I was lucky enough to study with Barbara Kopple and work for Beeban Kidron, and these two amazing women personally taught me a great deal. I was drinking in everything I could about how they tackled things, and still today their words ring in my ears. For example, Barbara once told me, "You always miss 99 percent of what you know you need, but don't worry; just keep going." And those words encourage me when I miss an important scene, as inevitably happens sometimes in the uncontrollable world of documentary filmmaking.
Pixote, a Brazilian film, was in my mind a lot making Waste Land, because it is such a stunning film about poor outcast young people in Brazil, and also because our wonderful sound recordist was the son of its writer.
Waste Land will be screening July 30 through August 5 at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and August 13 through 19 the IFC Center in New York City.
To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.
To purchase tickets for Waste Land in Los Angeles, click here.
To purchase tickets for Waste Land in New York, click here.