Filmmaker Lucy Walker

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Celebrated documentary filmmaker addresses the question of whether art can transform lives.

Lucy Walker is a celebrated documentary filmmaker, with credits that include Nickelodeon's Blue's Clues, which earned two Emmy nods, and the films Countdown to Zero and Waste Land, both of which premiered at Sundance 2010—the first time a documentary director has had two films in one year at this festival. Walker grew up in London, directed theater in high school and graduated from Oxford, where her plays won prestigious awards. She won a Fulbright Scholarship to NYU's Graduate Film Program, and, while there, moonlighted as a musician and DJ.


Tavis: Lucy Walker is an acclaimed documentary filmmaker whose previous projects include “Devil’s Playground” and “Countdown to Zero.” Her latest project is called “Waste Land,” which took home the audience award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film now playing in New York, with Los Angeles and other cities on the way. Here now, some scenes from “Waste Land.”
Tavis: So Lucy, there’s Oscar buzz on this thing already, which begs the obvious question – why a film about garbage? How do you get drawn to trash? (Laughter)
Lucy Walker: Well, it wasn’t just me, it was this amazing artist called Vik Muniz and we cooked it up together. We were both obsessed with garbage. I actually, 10 years ago I was at NYU and I was taken on a visit to a landfill, just out of curiosity. A friend of mine, Robin Nagel (sp?) was teaching a class in garbage and I was so curious, I went along.
I had two realizations. The first was no matter how green and environmental I thought I was being before, when you really stand in a landfill and you really realize that everything you ever threw away, it doesn’t just vanish, it goes someplace, and there I was, standing on it, I was sort of embarrassed. I’d never really thought that through before – that everything I ever used hung about, sort of embarrassingly.
The second thing I thought was, well, my goodness, it would be such a cool location for a movie, because it just looked cool. There were plastic bags and mounds of garbage and these pipes with this gas sort of poking up, which was all distorting everything, and vultures everywhere.
It was a really crazy place, and I just as a filmmaker thought, cool. Why doesn’t anyone come here? It’s just such a powerful idea, with the garbage and the waste, and I think we’re all confronting waste and excess and consumer society and making different choices these days. So it’s sort of an interesting time to think about it.
Tavis: Let’s talk of some of the particulars. So as we mentioned a moment ago, this is the world’s largest landfill. Tell me about the site, about the venue.
Walker: It’s outside of Rio de Janeiro and it takes 70 percent of Rio de Janeiro’s garbage, but what was amazing was Vik Muniz, this artist and I, went on this amazing journey. Vik had this idea – can art transform people’s lives? And I thought that was fantastically interesting and wanted to film the whole journey of him making a project, but Vik, like myself and the film team, sort of thought that people working in a garbage dump, picking through, by hand, for recyclables, would be scary, sort of end-of-the-line people.
Vik, before he goes, said, “I think it’s maybe where everything that’s not good goes, including the people.” We get there, and the amazing surprise is these people are the coolest people I’ve ever met. There’s (unintelligible) who doesn’t just recycle paper, he picks the books out of the garbage, dries them off and then gives them for people to read.
There’s Irma (sp?), who takes the produce that’s there past its sell-by date, and she takes utensils from the garbage, and she takes the hot gas coming up, the methane, and uses it as a Bunsen burner flame to cook these delicious, big meals for everybody right there in the garbage.
There’s (unintelligible) who’s the leader. He organizes everyone into an association and is fighting for sewage, daycare, computers, skills training, and gets this association, which at the beginning nobody’s taking him seriously, and by the end everyone’s voting for him for the next president of Brazil.
So everyone is just amazingly charming, gorgeous, well-dressed. The women have this incredible style, these big earrings and these little short-short and these bright-colored, Day-Glo tights, and they’re just cool. The spirit and the courage and the dignity are outrageous.
We were just so grateful to meet these people and realize that what they’ve had to deal with in their lives, losing their parents at a very young age, escaping domestic violence, they’ve handled the worst that life can throw at you and they’ve just shone.
You can’t believe how funny and charming and gorgeous they are, and they just light up the whole movie. So the movie is this phenomenon and people are falling in love with the people and the movie, and it’s just been a – I can’t tell you what a sort of highlight, life – a dream come true it’s been to work on this movie.
Tavis: How did these persons that you’ve just described now, Lucy, find themselves working in this landfill in the first place?
Walker: Well, Brazil is a tough place if you’ve not got a lot of money, and when I think about how cool they are I think that these are the people who chose not to be prostitutes, drug traffickers or beg or steal. They’ve chosen this job that’s actually really doing this very important environmental stewardship role, and doing this dirty job for the rest of us.
They pick through the landfill and take out 200 tons of recyclables a day. When I think about the U.S., for example, I think we could be recycling 90 percent of our waste, but we only recycle 30 percent. So think about all that recycling, and we create a third of the world’s waste.
So these people are actually much more efficient than that, so they are actually doing this kind of cool job. But it is – it’s dirty and it’s smelly and they’re ostracized by other people, but they chose this job because they needed a decent living, and it pays decently and it is not –
Tavis: They get paid by whom?
Walker: It’s like a stock exchange, it’s crazy. You learn about this – they take out plastics and paper and they’re selling it to wholesalers who then turn those materials, the different kinds of plastics, the PVC or the PET, and they sell it and it gets ground down and then remolded into buckets or car bumpers.
There’s a whole industry of commodities, almost like a stock exchange, and the prices go up and down for paper and for different kinds of plastic and aluminum and all these different resources that they’re saving from the landfill and really recycling back into the world for reusing.
Tavis: As they move around, move about, move amongst all this trash, how is it that they keep from illness and disease and the like?
Walker: When I went there, I was most scared about the diseases, and I had every vaccination they’d ever invented. My arms were so sore I couldn’t even move them, and then I had 11 layers of moon outfits. I was so scared when I went there.
Then when I realized when I got there it was actually that it was less the diseases but it was more the physical injury, because you can see in the movie these amazing, giant trucks tilt up and all the garbage slides down and everyone sort of dives in, picking out the particular thing that they’re scavenging that day.
They’ll pick papers or plastics; the women tend to pick the lighter things, like the lighter plastics, because they’re easier to carry in big tarpaulins. But a lot of people have terrible scars or accidents; the trucks have run them over or not seen them or even have tilted over, because it’s unstable ground, on top of this giant garbage heap, so it’s very dangerous.
Tavis: I’m in this running – I’ve had this running conversation – I won’t say argument, but a running conversation with a friend of mine who’s been on this show who had a documentary done about him at least a year or so ago, Bill Withers, a great American recording artist.
Walker: Yeah.
Tavis: Withers said to me years ago – we’ve been going back and forth about this for years now – he made a statement to me one day over lunch that he believes that there is dignity in all work. That’s Bill’s formulation, that there’s dignity in all work.
I’m not sure, after years of debating him on this, that I agree with that, that there is dignity in all work, but is there dignity in this work?
Walker: These people are the poster people for dignity on the planet, and there’s an older man who’s so close to my heart who passes away during the movie, but he has – he’s like the Yoda of the landfill, the sort of bard of the dump. He has these poetic rhymes that keep everyone going. His catchphrase is “Ninety-nine is not 100,” by which he means every single can that we recycle, every single thing that we do, every single person that we are, that watch the movie, that show up, that do something better than they could otherwise be doing makes all the difference.
Every time I try and throw something away or I think about can I make a difference, I sort of think yes, and I hear his voice in my head saying, “Ninety-nine is not 100.” When I think about dignity, you can’t imagine anyone that personifies that more than him, and he’s worked in the landfill all his life, and he’s so proud of what he’s achieved in doing that. It’s just a joy to behold.
So it’s a very uplifting movie. It sounds awful, about garbage, but it’s a story, there are characters, stuff happens, it’s very dramatic, there are twists and turns, there are tears, there’s laughter. Everyone cries, I don’t know anyone that doesn’t cry, but it’s very joyful and uplifting.
Tavis: To your point now, every documentarian has a reason for doing the project. You’ve given some of that earlier in this conversation. What do you want us to take away from this? Do you want us to revel in the humanity of these people; do you want us to understand more about what we’re doing to the environment? Give me a sense of what you want the takeaway to be for us.
Walker: Well, if the hypothesis of the movie is can art transform lives, the answer is yes, because you really see – they make these beautiful, giant portraits. Vik is a very, very fantastic artist, and these beautiful pictures. But through this journey that everyone goes on you get to know these people.
Partly it’s about watching this artist be very afraid and very far away, looking at Google Earth and YouTube and trying to imagine what these people are like, and you go on this journey with him as he gets to know them and falls in love with them. They become best friends; they do this art project together.
They’re really – you can see exactly how their lives get transformed, and we film the whole process. But it’s also a really cool story about life, and the twists and turns it takes us, because the artist was actually from the exact same social background, and he got shot in the leg and got some money, because he got shot by a rich guy in a fight who gave him money.
He got a plane ticket to the U.S. and then fulfilled his dream to be this very successful artist, whereas the people in the landfill had had less good luck. Their parents had died or they’d suffered horrible accidents or ill fortune and their lives had taken them to the garbage dump. One woman had lost her son and had a very hard time surviving that.
But you see how it’s possible to heal and grow and even bounce back from really difficult stuff, and I feel like we’ve all felt in our lives that we’ve come through the garbage dump of our own lives and been recycled in our spirit.
So it’s very much about can we recycle people, and the spirit that shines through from these people is just a joy to behold, and it kind of winds up revaluing ourselves, not as garbage, but as art. You find the trinkets and the treasures in our own lives, and we see how you can shine in even the most difficult of circumstances.
But this cool stuff happens and there’s laughter and tears, and you get to know Brazil and these Brazilians. It’s a really cool book. There’s never a lecture. I think you wind up being very tuned in, but it’s not a documentary that’s just a lecture about this and that.
You’ve really just – it’s a really wonderful journey with amazing, amazing people you’ve never seen before, I think, in a movie, people so charming. I defy you to find people as charming and amazing as these people. (Laughter)
Tavis: Well, not to jinx, Lucy, but we’re pretty good around here after seven or eight years of doing this show, of picking what we think has a good chance at winning the documentary category at the Academy Awards – seven years, I don’t think we’ve missed yet. We pretty much have everybody on here every year who wins this thing.
So there’s a lot of buzz on this one. It’s called “Waste Land,” and its director is Lucy Walker. Lucy, congrats on the film and I look forward to watching its success in the coming months, so thanks for your time tonight.
Walker: Thank you. Thank you so much.
Tavis: My pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm