Overlooking Rio de Janeiro stands the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched, facing south, overlooking the people of Rio. But not all of the people.
Overlooking Rio de Janeiro stands the iconic statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched, facing south, overlooking the people of Rio. But not all of the people. To the north, on the edge of Guanabara Bay, is a metropolitan landfill, Jardim Gramacho (Gramacho Garden), one of the largest in the world, receiving some 7,000 tons of garbage daily.
Day and night, immense trucks arrive carrying some 70 percent of all the trash generated by Rio, creating a sea of refuse, a mix of decaying detritus and scavenging birds that dot the mounds. It is estimated that some 13,000 people live at the dumpsite, a community of catadores, or trash pickers.
International artist Vik Muniz — a native of Brazil and now Brooklyn-based — returned to Rio, his purpose to spend time at Jardim Gramacho. There he began photographing individual catadores.
"Waste Land" Director Lucy Walker accompanied him and filmed Muniz creating what would eventually be a hugely successful art project that would be shown at major galleries in Rio and London.
Everything about "Waste Land" is counterintuitive. The expectation is that the film will have a subtext of outrage, and the audience will, once again, see desperately poor people reduced to subsistence living at a landfill.
However, as Muniz comes to know these people, using at first only a camera, he realizes that there is another reality at the site that is not defined by anger and grinding poverty. The catadores of Jardim Gramacho are each day in the hunt only for recyclables. And they are paid a daily wage for their efforts. More than one catadore insists that it is honest work for honest pay. A few have been pickers for decades.
What emerges in Walker's film is something totally unexpected as Muniz narrows his focus to a small group of catadores. Young and old, they live complex, difficult and transcendent lives, and they collaborate with Muniz in creating their images, blown up at first in an immense hangar, involving trash from the site. Their humanity begins to overtake the project, and Muniz finds himself drawn into their individual narratives. It's a wonderful and engaging experience to watch the transformation of these people from one-dimensional pickers to complex, flawed and yet wonderfully tenacious individuals.
"Gasland" is both disturbing and compelling in the extreme. It's also what documentary filmmaking is all about. In the words of director Josh Fox, it calls forth emotions of anger and sadness.
His film documents what has become the largest domestic natural gas drilling endeavor in U.S. history. The process used by companies such as Halliburton is called "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing, which allows companies to drill down thousands of feet to unlock what is reported to be vast reserves of natural gas, the equivalent of the oil fields discovered in Saudi Arabia. While natural gas is touted as being a source of clean energy, the chemicals used in the drilling are chilling and have been found to contaminate ground water and wells in region after region across the country.
It is an all too familiar story of residents growing sick — they can literally set their tap water on fire — with a litany of serious, debilitating ailments.
Meanwhile, the industry denies all culpability and remains unregulated, exempt from the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. The EPA seems either unable or unwilling to step forward and challenge an industry that insists "fracking" is not the source of environmental contamination while refusing to provide a list of the chemicals used in drilling.
You will not recognize a single actor in "Benavides Born," a small film, but you will find a remarkable and absorbing story, nicely performed by a strong ensemble.
The narrative is set in Benavides, Texas, a Mexican-American community of hardworking people who have been all but leveled by the recession. At the center of the story is Luz Garcia, a hardheaded, intelligent high school athlete (she's a power-lifter) who is desperate to get a scholarship to the University of Texas at Austin. Without a scholarship, she can't attend.
Her family is barely keeping its head above water. And, as we see, it is desperation that causes Luz to make some very bad choices, to the point where all seems lost and her dream of going to college — and leaving Benavides — is slipping away.
What is so compelling about "Benavides Born" is its sense of verisimilitude. Director Amy Wendel has created in Luz a complex and multidimensional young woman. The locations are authentic and Wendel, using local actors, captured the feel of a Mexican-American town whose people have lived there for generations.
Of course, the young people of Benavides ask a familiar question: How can they escape from this small town, and what opportunities are available after they graduate from high school, other than the military? With insight and sensitivity, Wendel explores this dilemma through Luz and her extended family.
Hood to Coast
The Hood to Coast relay race is reported to be the largest in the world, an international phenomenon. As it happens, it takes place in Oregon, from Mount Hood to Seaside on the coast. Over the years, it has grown to 1,000 teams and some 12,000 runners who cover 197 miles over mountainous terrain. The race goes nonstop until the racers cross the finish line and can literally stand knee-deep in the ocean.
"Hood to Coast" follows several very different teams — veteran runners, novices, a few wanting only to survive — as they prepare and as they race.
While the race certainly is a test of endurance, a very personal challenge for the individuals who enter, each finds their limits and then pushes past them.
But the film also reveals that "Hood to Coast" is a celebration of life. Hundreds are in wacky costumes, cheering each other on, reveling in the strange and esoteric traditions of the race while encouraging one another to prevail.
There is an indescribable exhilaration as each team, arms linked, huddle at the end of the race, looking out at the Pacific Ocean, marveling at what it has just accomplished. There is something wildly extreme about this experience, a journey of 1,000 steps that seems both wonderful, exhilarating and frighteningly masochistic.
Director Christoph Baaden, in his debut film, captures the spirit of that experience and then some.
Living for 32
"Living for 32" is a short documentary that revisits April of 2007 when 32 students died and 17 were wounded at Virginia Tech University, shot by a deranged gunman whose legacy of rants and death have never been adequately explained. Nor has it ever been explained how it was possible for him to purchase the weapons he used in the shootings. A judge had written that he was mentally ill and in need of hospitalization.
Director Kevin Breslin interviews Colin Goddard, a 21-year-old international studies student, who was shot multiple times, and now, having graduated, works for gun control, testifying before Congress.
Breslin follows Goddard as he travels to gun shows and demonstrates, using a hidden camera, how lethal weapons of all types (Glocks; Ak-47s; machine guns) are sold without background checks or even proof of identity. It's chilling. And it's also instantly obvious that these shows represent a loophole in the law that is unconscionable as well as a major source of handguns for the unbalanced and the crazies. And we know that in a nation of 300 million, there are those who have lost significant contact with reality. Embedded in the film is the question: How can these gun shows continue while Congress does nothing to regulate them, despite the déjà vu experience of Tucson, Ariz.?
What the film does is personalize the stark tragedy of Virginia Tech, but never in an exploitive or maudlin way. Goddard survived. So many didn't.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Guerilla street art or graffiti is ubiquitous in urban settings, a trail of urban blight and tags covering any flat surface. But "Exit Through the Gift Shop" is not about your neighborhood kids up late, hidden in a black hoodies, wandering the streets with aerosol cans. This is about art, however art is defined, and might just include that kid with the spray can if he possesses some talent and creative juice, leaving behind a tag that is both interesting and spatially distinctive.
"Exit Through the Gift Shop" introduces one of the foremost practitioners of graffiti art whose work goes well beyond an interesting tag. His name is Banksy, an anonymous artist described by some who know his work as a "British National Treasure," while judged by others — say, the owners of the walls and storefronts that he uses as his canvases — to be a vandal who merely defaces buildings.
"Exit Through the Gift Shop," nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary, is, like Banksy himself, elusive, enigmatic, the film a type of epigram and an extension of the irreverent stencils he creates on urban walls, bridges and freeway overhangs. And not to forget a phone booth he borrows from a London street corner and then returns as deconstructed art.
Initially, the film seems to follow one narrative, focusing on an amateur filmmaker, Thierry Guetta — likable, idiosyncratic, a small shop owner who becomes obsessed with the late-night denizens of city street art. With his camcorder, he records them working while in the hunt for the uber-artist, Banksy. But then the film morphs into something else entirely. It takes on a satirical bent and soon poses the question: What is art? And how do we judge its value and impact and qualities that engage or move us?
If the audience has forgotten that it is Banksy who is behind the lens, filming Guetta filming the artists, it gradually becomes clear while asking, is Banksy — using a camera — creating one more ingenious, subversive stencil in a digital medium instead of using a wall of concrete or brick?