An Oscar-nominated profile of a wealthy artist who sets out to improve the lot of an impoverished social underclass through creative outreach, set to a soundtrack by Moby, Waste Land sounds like the sort of film that should come with a smug do-gooder disclaimer before its opening credits. It will come as a pleasant surprise (to those unfamiliar with British director Lucy Walker's earlier films, at least) that the film that unravels is more self-conscious, subtle enquiry than the dubious bleeding-heart PR stunt implied by its premise.
The artist in question is Brazilian-born Vik Muniz, and the film tracks his portraiture project with a handful of the 3,000 odd catadores (or "pickers") who filter the contents of the world's largest rubbish dump, Jardim Gramacho in Rio de Janeiro. As in her 2006 documentary, Blindsight, which followed record-breaking blind mountaineer Eric Weihenmayer as he accompanied six blind Tibetan children up a 23,000ft peak neighbouring Everest, Walker openly questions the motives of her subject (as does Muniz himself) from the outset. One minute the artist is expressing doubt over his own presumptions - "Who am I to help?" ; the next, he's coolly discussing with a business associate the need for the Jardim Gramcho project to capture "the human factor" in order to succeed.
Whether the works themselves, mass-scale portraits of the catadores made from waste materials (filmed from above in time lapse sequences that inescapably call to mind some of Neil Buchanan's finest art attacks) make the grade is, of course, down to personal taste - though they reach tens of thousands at auction. Walker's film undoubtedly succeeds in Muniz's aim, though, largely through interviews with the catadores.
Their surprising, frequently harrowing anecdotes are as abundant and varied as their quarry - from the description of a teenage picker, already a mother herself, of the moment she found a baby's body discarded amongst everyday waste; to another's comparison of the rule of drug lords over contemporary favelas to the clout of private armies in Renaissance Florence (gleaned from his reading of Machievelli's The Prince, a garbage-soaked copy of which he salvaged from Gramacho). Trite as it inevitably sounds, it's the age-old triumph of the human spirit that chimes the loudest here, along with the voice of one particularly lively protester, responding to a fellow union member's suggestion that the catadores' go on hunger strike outside the local mayor's office: "I don't know about you guys, but I'm having lunch at noon!"