Q&A: Director Lucy Walker

Waste Land, directed by Lucy Walker and co-directed with João Jardim and Karen Harley, is among the 15 films shortlisted for Oscar consideration in the Documentary Feature category. Shortly after she received the news, realscreen caught up with an 'ecstatic' Walker to reflect on the film's success.
November 22, 2010

Filmmaker Lucy Walker is the director behind two very different documentaries this year: Countdown to Zero, a Participant Media-produced argument for disarming the world’s nuclear arsenals, and Waste Land, an uplifting story about trash pickers working in the world’s largest garbage dump outside Brazilian city Rio De Janeiro, produced by London-based Almega Projects and Brazil’s O2 Filmes.

Co-directed with João Jardim and Karen Harley, Waste Land follows Brooklyn-based visual artist and photographer Vik Muniz as he travels to his native Brazil to photograph a handful of catadores – people who work picking and selling recyclable material from the landfill. Muniz then recreates the portraits as massive mosaics composed from trash and auctions them off to international art buyers to raise money for the trash pickers. Throughout the process both the artist and his subjects begin to view themselves in a new light.

Last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that the film was among the 15 shortlisted for consideration in the Academy Awards’ Documentary Feature category. Shortly after she received her Oscar news, realscreen caught up with an ‘ecstatic’ Walker to reflect on Waste Land‘s sleeper success since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Was the idea for this film an easy sell to producers and financiers?
The beautiful thing was it was very organic. This was cooked up by Vic and myself, saying how could we make a film together and realizing we’re both obsessed with garbage. He mentioned that he tried and failed to do a project in a landfill and I said, ‘That would be the most amazing movie.’ We were lucky enough to have a producer that was keen to encourage us on both those fronts, keen to encourage collaboration between the two us, to encourage Vic’s art and my filmmaking and to see what would happen. He raised some seed money quite easily and we got the rest of the money from the Brazilian government. That was very effortless. It was very clear to me that the film was a fantastic idea. I think sometimes ideas crystallize and you know they’re great ones.

Where does your interest in garbage come from? I read that you wore a garbage bag to the premiere at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
I did. I saw it as a joke because I’d run out of dresses and I’m a documentary filmmaker after all. Then I had this idea because I had this cool belt and I thought it looked very stylish. I’m actually very proud of myself because was impressed and threw a story together. I’d like to think that it wasn’t just any old garbage bag dress – I actually looked good wearing a garbage bag.

That was sort of a joke but it’s also not a joke because we are working with people who spend their lives sifting through recyclables for a job… The genius of the artist [Muniz] is he comes here and turns the stuff people throw away into stuff that people buy back at auction and call art and compete to spend huge amounts of cash for. It’s a fantastic alchemical process, this art-making process we get to observe. The people we get to meet are also somewhat recycled. It’s a great recycling of spirit. It’s a great metaphor for how we’re valuing ourselves in the outside world and for the people who live in the garbage dump and are feeling ostracized, it’s very important.

There are several moments in the film when the characters talk about how working with the artist changed their perspectives on themselves. Have you had that experience?
I’m careful about making sweeping statements how I’m a better person now. I once had a producer who used to always say she was a highly improved person because of making [a] movie and I always used to scratch my head and say, ‘Well, exactly how?’ As a documentarian I want to observe things and sometimes I think it can take a big impact to make a little needle shift difference in how we live our lives.

I think we’re such creatures of habit. I must say it was very powerful to realize when you’re in a landfill, how much stuff we as human beings are consuming and discarding. These people are the perfect metaphor for not being disposable – the people recycling for us are doing an environmentally important job, they’re really environmental stewards and you’ll never look at your own waste in the same way if you spend much time in the landfill.

What was is like making two films at the same time. I understand you were making this film simultaneously to Countdown to Zero?
I made them in a big sandwich. It was a lot of responsibility to deliver these movies. What was nice was actually they were very different experiences. Countdown was very scary, whereas Waste Land was very uplifting. I didn’t set out to make an uplifting film but I needed it at that point, having dealt with nuclear weapons. It was nice to come back to some personal stories where you can much more easily make a difference. Making a difference in nuclear weapons is imperative so I’m really thrilled to have made Countdown with such an amazing team and I think such great differences are being made. Talk about times where it’s takes an awful lot of work to move the needle a little bit, I think that’s the world of nuclear weapons.

What’s the most challenging film you’ve made?
In all the four films I’ve made I’m going to say that talking about nuclear weapons [with Countdown] was a challenge. Getting people to be candid on such a dangerous and classified topic; that was really hard.

I would say Vic was [also] a challenge because he doesn’t often reflect on his own life. I think it was a powerful circling back for him to reflect on his very humble origins. It is easy enough to say, but you can really see in the film he’s very finally tuned in the fact that he was from the exact same social background as these people. Now he’s this successful superstar and they’re in the garbage dump and there but for the grace of God goes he… I honestly feel Vic opened up to me but I don’t feel like he’s done that before. I took it as a big complement that he trusted me enough as an artist to let his guard down and actually be very open about what an intense experience he was having.

Are you the type of director that worries about being pigeonholed?
I always feel like there are things that hold me back but I don’t feel being pigeonholed is one of them. I think it’s a tough time for any filmmaker right now, even the ones at the top of the heap. There’s a lot of change going on in our industry and I think it can be very hard for women especially. I wish the stats for female directors were more encouraging.

It’s like falling in love, making these projects. It’s such a complete commitment and there’s no being half-assed about it. When you’ve got a new project you’d better get ready to have your life taken over and just go with it.

Waste Land screens at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam on Nov. 24, 27 and 28th. It’s now playing in U.S. cinemas and opens in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal this weekend. For more screening information, visit

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.