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Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Vik Munoz turns trash into art in Waste Land.

This week, I finally had the opportunity to catch Waste Land, one of last year’s Oscar-nominated documentaries, and right now, it seems appropriate to revisit that category—not only to share my thoughts on the films, but to reflect on some tragic current events that have transpired since the Oscars.

As most of you likely know, we lost Tim Hetherington last Wednesday. Most of you will remember him as one of the directors of Restrepo. I’ll always remember how highly my journalism professors spoke of him and Sebastian Junger (Restrepo’s other director). It’s something that’s often overlooked—or worse, dismissed as reckless—but journalists who risk their lives to bring us breaking news from the front are deeply courageous individuals who deserve our utmost respect and admiration. Hetherington happened to be one of the most skilled at his profession, and he’ll be incredibly missed.

As far as Waste Land (2.5 Stars) goes, I have to say it was easily the weakest of the five films nominated last year. In fact, I can count on two hands the number of docs I saw from 2010 that were more deserving of a nomination than Lucy Walker’s turgidly paced human interest piece. The film follows renowned artist Vik Munoz on his biggest project to date—a series of portraits made completely of recycled materials. The portraits are of Brazil’s famous “pickers”—individuals who live at Rio’s biggest dump and collect recycled materials from the landfill’s heaps of refuse.

The portraits themselves are undeniably cool, and I wish director Lucy Walker (director of fellow 2010 disappointing doc Countdown to Zero) focused a little more on the process. Instead, we get a dozen underdeveloped stories about these individuals’ lives, detailing how and why they became pickers, as well as their hopes and dreams beyond the landfill. It’s not like I was uninterested in what they had to say, it’s just that I didn’t feel like there was anything one-of-a-kind about their stories. These are good people who work hard and don’t often have much to show for it, so I hate to sound callous when talking about their livelihood and what I’m sure is an important issue to them, but it just didn’t hold my interest the way it needed to…the way other films in the category did.

One of the films that really captivated me—GasLand (3.5 Stars). Josh Fox’s infuriating expose of the natural-gas drilling industry reeled me in on both an intellectual and emotional level. By the end, I felt like I had learned a ton and was ready to smash some faces in.

Fox is a seemingly ordinary young man who decides to do some digging into the practices of his local natural gas drilling companies. What he finds shocks him: Local residents are complaining about totally undrinkable tap water, which in some cases is so bad that it can actually be set on fire. Natural gas drilling is relatively new in Fox’s Pennsylvania area, so he packs up and travels the country to see if these problems are happening elsewhere. The results of his journey are disturbing—the practice of hydraulic fracking, which is how companies collect natural gas from the ground, is injecting dangerous chemicals into the water. It’s also killing animals, spreading cancer and other ailments, disrupting ecosystems, and polluting the air.

To sum it up, fracking sucks, yet no one seems to want to do anything about it. The politicians featured in the film are (surprise, surprise) total hypocrites, and the natural gas representatives are downright despicable. Yet the way Fox deals with them is interesting and unusual. He has this deadpan sense of humor, and he sprinkles it through the film. That humor was the only think keeping me from hitting something.

GasLand also holds a special little place in my heart because Fox is a local guy, not too far from where I grew up in Pennsylvania. And it’s worth noting that Fox has taken some real heat since the film hit last year—a few weeks ago, a case of reported arson took place on his property, though whether there’s a connection to his activism remains unclear.

Sadly (or perhaps thankfully), there’s no new news to report on Inside Job and Exit Through the Gift Shop, the other two nominated docs from last year. The former won the award; the latter was one of my favorite films of the year.

Having now seen all the nominees in this “year of the documentary,” I’d rank them as such:

1.) Exit Through the Gift Shop
2.) GasLand
3.) Inside Job
4.) Restrepo
5.) Waste Land

Not sure what 2011 will bring, as far as non-fiction is concerned, but if it comes anywhere close to what 2010 did, it’ll be a success in my book.

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