by Janny Castillo
At St. Mary’s Center Annual Gala on April 2, Amir Soltani was honored for his unyielding dedication to his film, Dogtown Redemption, an honest look into the lives of three homeless West Oakland recyclers. Those who watch the documentary will be moved, challenged and forever changed.
St. Mary’s Center Executive Director Carol Johnson introduced Amir with the following words. “Amir is a London-born human rights advocate who looked out one day from his brother’s West Oakland apartment and saw what all too many of us fail to see — the human faces and precious lives that often go unseen in the very midst of the poverty and homelessness in our city.”
Talking to Amir, the creator and co-director of Dogtown Redemption, one can sense a calm, loving soul filled with gratitude for the experience of walking his documentary from idea to film. During a 2012 interview with boona cheema, co-founder of boonachepresents, Amir described the day his life changed when he looked out that West Oakland window.
“I would see, day after day, people pushing these shopping carts…. Finally, one day I was looking out, and an older gentleman was pushing his cart down the street and half his body was paralyzed.”
Amir decided right then to stop looking at the world through a window and step through the door into it. This was the moment that changed the trajectory of his life. As Amir helped the man with his bottles and cans, he learned that the recycler’s name was Jefferson and he was a retired longshoreman who had suffered a heart attack. Jefferson told Amir that recycling was his way of supplementing his income.
That day, he followed Jefferson to Alliance Metals, as much a character in the film as the recyclers that move through its doors daily. Amir described the impact of that moment.
“The doors open and you go in, and I think, is this America?! Not necessarily in a bad sense…. Half the people in Alliance Metals should have been dead, medically dead, legally dead, emotionally dead, and criminally dead, but there was life. It was the most lively, energetic, creative place you can imagine!”
He tried to express the shift that occurred when he saw the recycling center for the first time. “I saw America’s character, human dignity, strength, compassion and resilience.” Amir also shared that Jefferson had died several months before the taping of the interview.
There began a seven-year journey that produced Dogtown Redemption — and a friendship with a little Asian broken beauty that filled his life with compassion and loss. A deeply moving scene in the film is when West Oakland recycler Hayok Kay lies weeping on top of the grave of her closest friend, Fred Griffing III.
Amir’s friendship with Miss Kay is the behind-the-scenes story of the film. Amir cared for Miss Kay in many ways. As often happens when we treat others without judgment and give without expecting reciprocation, Amir received much in return from the volatile, loving, crass, emotionally broken, chronically homeless, but so full of hope woman, Miss Kay.
One morning in the spring of 2015, outside of CVS Pharmacy in Emeryville where Miss Kay slept, Amir came upon yellow police tape. Sadly, he learned that she had been severely beaten and was in intensive care. Her doctors told him that she would probably never wake again.
After a long vigil, Kay’s family entrusted the final decisions about her medical care to her trusted friend, Amir. After reaching out to people who knew her best, he decided to let her go and set her free.
His words and actions show that Amir values human life and understands the tragic effects that unrelenting poverty can have on individuals and our community.
“Amir has something more than a powerful gift for storytelling,” Johnson told the attendees at the St. Mary’s gala. “He also has a deep and passionate concern for the lives of people living on the streets of our community, and he is concerned for the protection of their human rights.”
“One would have to imagine the fortitude and strength of character that it took to physically, emotionally give birth to a film as raw and truthful as Dogtown Redemption,” said Karla Salazar, director of St. Mary’s Resources for the Third Age.
In his remarks at the gala, Amir praised St. Mary’s Center as a beacon of support for homeless seniors, adding that homeless people find shelter, food and comfort at St. Mary’s Center, a respite from the cold, mean streets of West Oakland. That same evening, Amir Soltani also received a Certificate of Congressional Recognition from Rep. Barbara Lee.
Amir said, “Being honored by St. Mary’s is to know that our work, stories and dreams, the intention that has animated this film, will live through you. That’s a huge relief. Your love and presence is the ultimate sanctuary for the recyclers who live and die on the streets of our city: a source of time and space, being and becoming. In St. Mary’s, in you, we have found our home. Thank you.”
In the greater Bay Area, the number of residents 65 and older living below the federal poverty line has roughly doubled in the last ten years. Most of these seniors are non-white, single women, and the vast majority cannot afford the costs of housing, prescriptions and food, said Johnson.
Dogtown Redemption will be televised nationwide on PBS on May 16, 2016. The film also will be shown locally at various West Oakland locations. For a schedule visit www.dogtownredemption.com