PHILADELPHIA — “It’s about garbage, it’s a documentary, and I’m from England originally,” Lucy Walker remembers stammering, in a fit of awkwardness, to a group of Brazilian producers when she was looking for funding for her proposed film, “Waste Land.”
“It was a disaster of a meeting,” she says, laughing now. “But they called back a few weeks later and said they were interested.” And so, off Walker went, following Vik Muniz — the Brazilian-born, Brooklyn-based artist — as he headed to Rio de Janeiro in 2007 to create portraits of people who make their living sifting mountains of trash in one of the world’s largest landfills. Catadores, they call themselves — pickers of recyclables. Men, women, children, scrambling over the piles of trash (and the occasional body part) looking for cans, bottles, anything they can redeem for money.
Despite its title, “Waste Land” — which played at Sundance (an Audience Award-winner) and was recently short-listed for Oscar consideration — is anything but bleak. Muniz, an acclaimed artist who works with nontraditional materials, had the idea to “paint” the catadores using the garbage they collect. He is a spirited figure who not only engaged his subjects, but also recruited them as collaborators. And the people he found in the Jardim Gramacho — one of the largest landfills in the world — are nothing if not resilient. With horrible hard-luck stories to tell, they face the world with dignity and hope, even as they troll the apocalyptic rubble of a society’s excess.
“In the film, Vik talks about how, when you’re far away, you can’t see the smiles on people as you can when you’re up close,” says Walker, who shows Muniz flying over the Rio landfill in a helicopter and then tracks him traipsing through the debris, interviewing the workers.
“And that’s the human factor,” she says. “The idea of getting close and far away in the same scene.”
If 2010 has been a great year for documentaries (and it has, from “The Pat Tillman Story” to “Restrepo” to “Inside Job” to “Marwencol” to “Client 9”), it’s been doubly great for Walker. The New York University-trained director had two titles at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and both have found their way to art houses. “Countdown to Zero” traces the history of nuclear weapons, from their World War II origins to their proliferation today. It’s not a film to watch if you want a good night’s sleep: rogue nations, mad despots, terrorists — ka-boom.
“When I was not sleeping because I was working so hard, I was not sleeping because of what I was reading about and being told — it was horrifying,” Walker says. “It was a very challenging time. I always joke that the next (documentary) I’ll choose will be about good times and chocolate, but I’m not sure.”
Walker grew up in London. She studied at Oxford University, where she began directing theater. She won a Fulbright to attend NYU’s graduate film program, where she mentored under Russian director Boris Frumin (his catchphrase: “Lyrical! Make it lyrical!”). Also in her class: Debra Granik, director of “Winter’s Bone.”
While Walker lived and studied in New York, her family was in Philadelphia. Her father was head of K’Nex, the construction-toy company. “I used to come here all the time,” she said, back again in October, when “Waste Land” screened at the Philadelphia Film Festival. She was also here in 2002, when her documentary “Devil’s Playground” — about Amish teens and their wild and crazy rite of passage, rumspringa — played at festivals and in theaters.
Her documentary “Blindsight” — released just before she headed to Rio to chronicle Muniz’s ambitious project and the people in it — followed six sight-impaired Tibetan adolescents as they scaled Mount Everest.
“I think there’s a real continuity with ‘Devil’s Playground’ and ‘Blindsight’ in that these films took me to amazing places, to meet amazing people. And coming of age as an Amish person, or climbing a mountain in ‘Blindsight,’ or doing this art project with Vik and the catadores, they’ve all been fascinating. ...
“And then, I guess for a little light diversion, I did this nuclear-winter film, a real humorous detour,” she jokes.
“But this is an exciting time for documentaries. ... We can take the cameras anywhere now, and meet people and just figure out what life is about, what it has to offer.”
Although Walker hasn’t decided what she’ll document next, it’s safe to guess that it won’t be about “good times and chocolate.” That doesn’t seem in her nature.
“Sometimes you feel like a wildlife photographer,” says the filmmaker. “If you’re quiet and you let the situation play out, then the truth just will express itself. The forces that are there ... all the deep negotiations and concerns will just erupt if you’re quiet enough. Wait for the bird to fly by. ... The truth is there. You’ve just got to wait and catch it.”