Film review by Carol Denney
When Amir Soltani first moved onto a quiet street in Oakland he noticed a parade of people coming by periodically to check the garbage. One after another throughout the day they would peer into the bins looking for redeemable bottles and cans.
The earliest person might find a few. Those who came later in the day would find less, or nothing, and Soltani began to want to talk to the recyclers, if only to tell them someone else had gotten there first and nothing was left.
The ingenuity and determination of the recyclers intrigued him. The lack of communication between householders in Oakland casually tossing away redeemable materials, while people made a living by gathering them for recycling, left him feeling disturbed and wanting to address the disconnection.
Eight years later, the film Dogtown Redemption was born, through the work of co-directors Amir Soltani and Chihiro Wimbush, a grant from the Berkeley Film Foundation, and a list of contributors so large it took several minutes for them to scroll by at the end of the film’s East Bay screening on March 1st at the new Parkway Theater on 24th Street in Oakland.
The applause for the film in this comfortable, well-appointed new theater swelled and sustained when it was over and the principals gathered for questions. It began with a broad shot of the sparkling view of West Oakland from the hills and then dialed in to the tender detail of the lives of recyclers themselves and Alliance Recycling’s dogged effort to continue its over 30 years of legal recycling operations for its own sake, the environment’s sake, and the sake of the hundreds who depend on recycling for income.
“We started making a film about poverty,” stated Soltani during the question-and-answer period after the film. “We ended up making a film about love.”
The poverty of the recyclers profiled in the film is quietly illustrated as people alternately find or lose housing and shelter options, find or lose loving relationships with family, friends, and lovers, and get a handle on their health and hope.
The filmmakers spent years on the street establishing trust with Dogtown Redemption’s main subjects, recyclers given intimate, respectful portraits. The despair of former Polkacide drummer Miss Hayok Kay’s visit to a lost love’s gravesite is given its pure gravity, and the spontaneous dance she does with a friend in a parking lot to music they sing together is treated with loving dignity. The camera itself seems to have completely disappeared early in the film.
But the powerful portrait of poverty in this film is almost secondary to the portrait of the extremely hard work it is to make a living from recycling. If you ever wondered how a recycling facility works, or how far people walk in a day for materials, how they balance the carts, or how much the materials weigh or are worth, this film will not only answer your questions from the mouths of the recyclers themselves, but it will knock you flat with the recognition that few jobs could be harder than this one.
Few jobs require earlier hours, more determination, more knowledge, and more literal strength. Alliance Recycling, over its years in business, has saved an estimated 1,735,258 gallons of oil and an estimated 8,712,078 gallons of water. Neighborhood recyclers, according to Alliance Recycling, “collectively salvage over 15,000 tons of materials each year that would otherwise go to landfills.”1
The community of people that does this work is black, white, Asian, and Hispanic. It is young, old, addicted, healthy, as capable and as culpable as any of us are in any housed community.
The intersection of lives, on track and off, weaves through our experience of the recyclers lives, making us inevitably feel like part of the fabric. We are the recyclers at times, heroically ploughing the East Bay’s rough streets, diverting reusable materials from the waste stream. We are the neighbors at times, depressed by the daily sight of poverty.
The church’s outreach helps former recycler Landon Goodwin’s path to stability, marriage, and steady employment. Teachers at a martial arts dojo help recycler Jason Witt recognize and affirm his own innate powers of balance and discipline without which, he stated, “I know I’d be dead by now.”
An outreach group helps Miss Kay acquire the identification card she needs to apply for assistance, which she briefly succeeds in doing before despair takes her back to the street, where she is victimized by an assault which left her in a coma before her death. The film is dedicated to her memory.
Recycling bottles, cans, plastics and metal is not romanticized in the film, but it is easy to see the way it makes sense to someone who needs work and watches what Bay Area citizens throw away without thinking. Toys, clothes, books, as well as recyclables are easy to find in Bay Area dumpsters and garbage bins.
We may think of ourselves as green, but sometimes the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse or Urban Ore option is apparently just too far to travel, and as more recycling centers close, people have to travel even farther through the streets. For people quick enough, strong enough, and smart enough, the Bay Area’s catastrophic amount of garbage can be culled for real gold.
The recyclers are occasionally accused of theft; PG&E pipe showed up one day at Alliance Recycling, bringing a wreath of police officers and a day without business. Alliance uses video cameras to cooperate with the police on potential theft issues.
Recyclers are occasionally accused of peeing in the wrong place, the same soluble problem any neighborhood encounters with college kids partying in the streets or Bay to Breakers runners cutting corners on their way to the finish line.
But the neighborhood voice that has the Oakland City Council’s ear right now is pretty obviously objecting to the sight of poverty itself, even poverty with the willingness to walk 15 miles a day redeeming materials no one else bothers with, just to make a difficult but independent living.
The majority of any scavenger’s haul is bottles and cans — bottles and cans which the film depicts in noisy, seemingly endless cascading waterfalls of color. The careful nuance and artifice poured into the appealing, colorful design of each can by corporate marketing teams becomes a riotous patchwork once sorted and crushed together, a small ratio of East Bay waste diverted from landfill by the dedication of street recyclers.
Former Congressional Representative Ron Dellums is featured in the film making the important connection to Oakland’s pivotal role in World War II. Oakland was “Ellis Island West” for the black men and women who were crucial in building the ships, the businesses, and the community that helped win the war, a community which recycled as a matter of course. Even children at the time collected materials such as scrap metal, an activity considered a civic duty and an exercise in patriotism.
When the government wanted workers for the shipyards of Richmond, it not only succeeded in creating one of the first instances of an integrated work force, both racially and by gender: it built housing. Not integrated housing, but more than 23,000 units of workforce housing in four years, including family housing, dorms for single men, and recreational facilities for children. This is something worth contemplation.
It isn’t that the government, in state, federal, or municipal form, doesn’t know how to build housing for low-income, working people. It’s that, right now, its ear is tuned in to developers’ needs and a few complaints from homeowners who object to the sound and sight of shopping carts rattling by.
Lena Rickles, the attorney for Alliance Recycling, says the business is slated to close this August, leaving hundreds of people who currently depend on recycling at risk of having no legal options for survival. “Neighbors did not want to look at them,” she says simply of the cascade of nuisance complaints this legal business has consistently and successfully fought. “When we damage their humanity we damage our own.”
Jason Witt, whose recycling feats are legend, called tent cities “inhumane” during the discussion after the film, a discussion which looked like a joyous family reunion for the film’s participants and crew. He broke hearts suggesting that people “come down in person and open up your…everything” as a step in awareness for interested people. “We have to stop looking at the problems that we think we have and look at the problems we really have.”
Co-director Chihiro Wimbush said, “I just happened to spend five years following people through the streets,” adding that he still couldn’t believe “how hard working these people really are.”
Without this film, its grant from the Berkeley Film Foundation, and the enormously supportive community that helped it along, this is a story which might never have been told. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that the spirit that brought thousands to work building 747 ships for the war effort in the 1940s is still here in Oakland, at least in the character of the people willing to get up every day and sift through the unwanted debris of arguably the most wasteful society on earth to pan for personal survival.
Don’t miss this film!