IT’S A NEW ERA FOR FIRST-PERSON DOCUMENTARIES AND CELEBRITY/GEEK SYNERGY.
Remember when we said that Google Glass needed Gucci and Prada to reinvent its tech as cool? Well, apparently they took the advice pretty literally.
They’ve just revealed the first, first-person documentary (short) shot through Google Glass, and it’s from the perspective of famous fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, during her hectic Sunday at New York Fashion Week. The most remarkable thing you’ll notice is just that it works very, very well. No doubt, it’s a selectively edited short, but the images are stable, natural and, above all, extremely personal. Whatever precise engineering mojo Google is working with lens width, video codecs and image stabilization is working better than an iPhone camera strapped to someone’s head. And as for von Furstenberg, who was she to complain about the Google-backed cameo? “I felt completely free and totally unaware that I was filming or being recorded,” she tells Co.Design. “It therefore feels very true and intimate.”
It’s not difficult to project where Google can take this approach. They debuted the Glass technology by strapping it onto a skydiver’s head. Now they’ve handed Glass to a designer for a more in-depth experiment. Don’t be surprised to see many Glass documentaries unfold through the eyes of increasingly large tastemakers and celebrities. Watch an NFL game through the eyes of a quarterback, or a rock concert from the perspective of the lead singer. It’s a deal that will work for everyone.
Celebrities develop an intimate, online media presence that dwarfs the fidelity of Twitter, promoted by the most connected company in the world. Google makes Glass cool. (Though, if I may be so bold, Glass could still use a line of designer frames.)
[Hat tip: Fast Company]
What a Chimp Teaches Us About Humans
“Project Nim,” a documentary film examining the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who learned to communicate with people using sign language, reveals more about people than other primates.
A cautionary tale about scientific hubris and overreaching that plays like a Planet of the Apes prequel, Oscar-winning (for Man On Wire) director James Marsh’s latest film, Project Nim, is about a chimp who learned to sign.
A major media story back in the late ‘70s, the story of Nim Chimpsky began when he was taken from his mother at a primate research center in Oklahoma and given to a New York family to be raised as a human. The experiment was the brainchild of Herb Terrace, a Columbia University psychology professor, who felt if the simian could be taught sign language, he might be able to express his thoughts and feelings.
Unfortunately, Nim was initially left with the family of Stephanie LaFarge, a former student (and lover) of Terrace’s, who didn’t seem to see surrogate motherhood as a scientific project but preferred to raise Nim in a chaotic, countercultural atmosphere (where he was given alcohol and allowed puffs on a joint) without bothering to provide any journals or logbooks charting his progress. “We enjoyed letting him hang out and see how it went,” says LaFarge of the way she parented Nim. But, she adds, in one of several “D’oh!” moments scattered throughout the film, “I wasn’t prepared for the wild animal in him.”
So Terrace took Nim from LaFarge and moved him to a Columbia facility where he was taught and nurtured by a series of scientists and sign language experts. His signing began “exponentially increasing” (Nim eventually learned 125 signs), and after New York magazine published a cover story titled “First Message From the Planet of the Apes,” so did his fame.
But as Nim grew, he became dangerous. He started biting people, at one point almost ripping off the entire right cheek of one of his teachers, which leads Laura-Ann Pettito, one of the chimp’s instructors, to note in the film that, “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you.”
From that point on, Project Nim moves from cautionary tale to animal horror story. Nim’s aggressiveness, which was also becoming sexual — he started humping the humans and a pet cat — forced Terrace to close the experiment. Nim was shipped back to the Oklahoma facility, where he had to learn to socialize with other chimps. Then the primate center, strapped for cash, sold Nim to an NYU center that tested vaccines on animals, where the director readily admitted that “there’s no way to carry out research on animals and for it to be humane.”
Nim ultimately found peace in his old age with others of his kind and died in 2000 at the age of 26. But Project Nim lingers in the mind for all sorts of reasons, none more important than the ”playing God” aspects of the research and what seems to be a curious case of cluelessness on the part of the people involved.
Whether or not it’s important to find out if animals can be taught to communicate like humans is a question the film refuses to answer. It’s obvious we communicate with animals already, as anyone who has ever had a pet can attest. But what’s the ultimate goal of this research? To create simians as intelligent as Cornelius and Dr. Zira? To discover the difference between human and animal cognition? Or is it simply a way to justify a large research grant? There’s a certain hubristic zeal to the enterprise that comes off as distasteful.
Further, knowing that Nim would grow up to be large and aggressive — in other words, a normal chimp — puts the experiment in another light. Terrace admits “no one keeps a chimp for more than five years,” so treating him like a human, then dumping him when he’s of no further use, is not just insensitive, but it also looks like a sophisticated form of animal cruelty. Not that Terrace will cop to this — he ultimately describes Project Nim as a failure, noting blithely that “knowing words doesn’t mean you can string them together.”
You could also add that knowing how to teach an animal to sign doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to treat him humanely. In Planet of the Apes, head simian scientist Dr. Zaius declares that “to suggest that we can learn anything about the simian nature from a study of man is sheer nonsense.” But Project Nim suggests that by studying chimps, we might learn more about human nature than we really want to know.
It’s a funny movie, and it makes you think. What more can you ask of a movie?
Lucy Walker’s moving documentary about the massive Jardim Gramacho dump in Brazil and the people who make their living picking through it, opens Friday in New York, Nov. 5 in L.A.
[UPDATE: Waste Land has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Congratulations to Lucy Walker!]
Waste Land, a new documentary about an art world superstar and garbage pickers in one of the largest dumps in the world, will change the way you think about chucking trash.
“It’s the idea of the magic trick gone wrong,” director Lucy Walker (below) tells Fast Company. “Everything you’ve ever thrown away, it doesn’t vanish.”
In Brazil, it goes to places like Jardim Gramacho, a 321-acre dump on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro that handles 70% of the metro’s trash. But rather than preach inconvenient truths about recycling with an oozing, stinking, open-air landfill as a main character, Waste Land focuses on the dump’s catadores—garbage pickers—who sift through some 7,000 tons of fresh waste daily to eke out their living. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 of them live on the dump site; 15,000 people make a living on activities related to it. Waste Land focuses on a few unforgettable characters.
They find glass, plastic, and metal which is bundled and sold in bulk to recyclers. They find treasures—books, cash, borderline meat which at least one dump chef, “Irma,” cooks up in found pots for hungry catadores. They find bodies, too, victims of drug and favela wars who’ve been “necklaced” (a gruesome execution in which a tire is placed around a victim’s neck and set ablaze). They find dead babies.
Nevertheless, it’s an uplifting story.
The catadores work under a minimal code of safety. They have a co-op run by an idealistic young man named Tiaõ (below). Most of all, they have pride in the idea that they provide a vital service. These are not your average street corner can collectors. They help extend the life of the landfill and reclaim precious materials for re-use. In short, they are saving the planet in the most hands-on way imaginable.
“They’re incredibly environmentally responsible,” Walker says. As several of the pickers point out, it’s not prostitution or drug-running, two other popular paths for Brazil’s poorest.
“When confronted with that choice, they choose garbage,” Walker says. “It’s like a hard job they’re doing for the rest of us. They’re sort of taking it for the team, in terms of having to put themselves in harm’s way.”
In the film’s only real lecture-like scene, an aging picker named Valter (right) is asked whether individuals pulling pieces out of tons of garbage can really make a difference. His answer: yes, of course. “Ninety-nine is not 100,” he says.
Valter, along with each of the other main characters impacted Walker (Blindsight, Countdown to Zero) in unexpected ways, she says. She showed up in 2007, dressed in layers and overalls. The women pickers wore bright contrasting clothing, accessories, giant earrings. “There’s actually a Gramacho look,” Walker says.
There’s a twist in Waste Land. It’s not spoiling any surprises to say that viewers are ushered into the dump by a seemingly unlikely host, part-time Brooklyn-based artist Vik Muniz (top). He’s found enormous fame and wealth with arresting images and what is, essentially, a gimmick — re-doing famous pictures with weird materials. He’s recreated a double Mona Lisa in peanut butter and jelly, aped a famous shot of Jackson Pollock using Bosco syrup, and recast a Civil War portrait using toy soldiers.
His prints sell for tens of thousands of dollars at auction. “He’s practically printing money as an art photographer,” Walker says, adding that she’s Muniz’s biggest fan.
But Muniz hasn’t come to exploit the trash workers. He was raised poor in Brazil himself. He won an art scholarship, landed a gig with a billboard company where he rose to prominence, then got shot in the leg on the way to a black-tie gala. His attacker paid him not to press charges, and Muniz used the money to come to America.
In the film, he decides to return and take portraits of the catadores, then recast those photos in massive sizes using recyclable materials (don’t call it “trash”) from Jardim Gramacho.
He enlists the catadores (still considered an underclass) in a paid social experiment—one that becomes a wedge between Muniz and his wife. “What I really want to do is to change the lives of a group of people with the same materials they deal with every day,” he says in the film.
We see how the pickers handle this radical makeover of their lives, from trash denizens to artists. Over a musical score by Moby (a longtime friend of Walker’s) scenes from art galleries are juxtaposed with hellish scenes from Jardim Gramacho. One second, someone’s sipping champagne. The next, someone else is slogging through a mountain of filth on a rainy day, dodging a gush of garbage juice as a front end loader pours out a fresh batch.
At one point, a striking, angel-faced young picker named Isis (below, with another worker, Valeria—Isis is on the right), who’s suffered a string of tragedies, declares, “I don’t see myself as trash anymore.” Tearing up, she adds, “I don’t want to go back to the garbage.” Some do, though.
Just as the catadores’ brush with the art world seems to be ending, Muniz has a few surprises for them—which viewers of Extreme Makeover or Oprah will appreciate. (Skip to the bottom of this post for an update on some of the film’s main subjects, with spoilers.)
The question left intentionally unanswered is what becomes of the catadores in the decades after Muniz’s project. Will the ones who went to work at the dump after falling on hard times use this leg up to get out? Will career pickers keep picking? And in the end, will they find themselves plucked from all that trash and remade into something new or end up feeling used and discarded?
“It’s a film about recycling people, too,” Walker says.
Character updates (SPOILER ALERT!)
Walker gave us a few updates on prominent catadores whose situations have changed since the last cut of the film.
Suelem’s been found. “I was very worried,” Walker says. Her new boyfriend was supporting her so she could live at home, where she cares for three kids. “This was such an unexpected possibility to people at the dump, that they assumed she’d been killed.” The boyfriend, Walker says, “is good news.”
In addition to money for various needs, each of the film’s main characters got a house. The rest of the money from the sale of art in which they were depicted went to a catadore association dedicated to improving the group’s overall situation.
Irma was last seen in the film back in the garbage — a sad turn of events for the matronly dump chef. But proceeds from the art paid for new pots. She’s cooking again, Walker says … in the dump. She had an outside business but decided to return. As Irma says in the film, she likes it there. (“She also has a boyfriend who’s a few years younger,” Walker says.)
Tiaö continues to run the association and show up for occasional events around the film, where he always brings down the house.
The dump itself is closing, as all landfills are supposed to do. The catadores won’t be allowed at new dumps. Current workers are being integrated into the recycling industry. Here’s more: