One of the powers of great portraiture is its ability to make us wonder about the complete strangers captured within enigmatic works of art. Vik Muniz’s recent series does that: After years of re-creating famous paintings out of trash and other discarded material, the Brazilian artist decided to return to his home country and photograph the garbage pickers who scavenge the world’s largest landfill, Jardim Gramacho. Lucy Walker’s “Waste Land” takes his project one step deeper by actually getting to know Muniz’s models, which brings a compelling human-interest dimension to the sort of art doc otherwise better suited for TV.

Rejecting the idea of a standard career-retrospective docu, Walker opted instead to accompany Muniz on his ambitious Brazilian adventure. Even with that hook, the format remains fairly conventional: Pic begins and ends with clips from an eccentric Brazilian talkshow and gives just enough context of Muniz’s past work (particularly his “Sugar Children” series) before finding its stride.

Once Muniz arrives at Jardim Gramacho, however, Walker’s admirable heal-the-world interest in her surreal new environment immediately takes over. Though others have recently shown interest in other anthill-like landfills, where workers literally seem to live amid the garbage (Leslie Iwerks’ Oscar-nominated short “Recycled Life” and Mai Iskander’s shortlisted 2009 feature “Garbage Dreams” come to mind), it’s an eye-opening experience for First World auds.

Among the garbage pickers, Zumbi rescues books to create a local library, Irma cooks up not-yet-spoiled meat to feed her fellow workers, and Tiao organized the pickers to better protect their rights. These are just three of the hundreds who work there —  proud laborers whom Walker observes both at ground level (where their smiles contradict the seemingly soul-crushing conditions) and from the air (their identities reduced to anonymous specks). That contrast serves as a wonderful metaphor for the way Muniz depicts his subjects: First, he photographs them on a personal level, and then he re-creates their images on a massive scale from bits of recycled material before finally photographing the results from above.

As Agnes Varda demonstrated in “The Gleaners and I,” documentary filmmaking is itself a form of scavenging. Muniz is focused on the end result (his portraits will travel to auction in London, with proceeds set to benefit the garbage pickers), and while he works, Walker’s team goes off to collect details about the private lives of his six models, giving us that rare insight into the real personalities behind these haunting portraits (she also includes a seventh, older gentleman, undereducated but wise in his own way).

Though Sundance auds seemed to connect most with the transformative impact Muniz’s project had on his six characters’ lives, the film is strongest when it’s not actively pulling at your emotions. Especially mesmerizing are the wordless sequences of the garbage pickers at work — Moby-scored montages that hauntingly convey the otherworldly feel of the place. During these scenes, “Waste Land” feels more like an art film than just another film about art.

Waste Land

Docu -  U.K.-Brazil

  • Production: An Almega Projects (U.K.) presentation of an Almega Projects (U.K.)/O2 Filmes (Brazil) production. Produced by Angus Aynsley, Hank Levine. Executive producers, Fernando Meirelles, Miel de Botton Aynsley, Andrea Barata Ribeiro, Jackie de Botton. Co-producer, Peter Martin. Directed by Lucy Walker. Co-directors, Joao Jardim, Karen Harley.
  • Crew: Camera (color, HD), Dudu Miranda, Heloisa Passos, Aaron Phillips; editor, Pedro Kos; music, Moby; sound (Dolby Digital), Aloysio Compasso, Jose Loreizo; assistant director, Gabriela Weeks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema -- competing), Jan. 25, 2010. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.) Running time: 99 MIN.
  • With: With: Vik Muniz, Fabio Ghivelder, Isis Rodrigues Garros, Jose Carlos da Silva Baia Lopes (Zumbi), Sebastiao Carlos do Santos (Tiao), Valter dos Santos, Leide Laurentina da Sailva (Irma), Magna de Franca Santos, Suelem Pereira Dias, Simon de Pury.