If you live in New York City, or have even visited the city, you’ve noticed them: people who dig through trash cans and garbage bags looking for cans that they can use to recycle for cash. They are a marginalized group, sometimes hauling hundreds of pounds of recyclables around. They're also the subject of a fascinating new HBO documentary short called “Redemption,” directed by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, that is nominated for the Best Documentary Short Oscar next weekend.
The 30-minute film focuses on the different types of canners, some of whom are incredibly surprising, and the very distinct world that they inhabit. We got to talk to the directors (who were previously nominated for a 2010 Academy Award for their film "China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of the Sichuan Province," about the 2008 earthquake) about what surprised them about making the documentary, how 'Redemption' illuminates an underexposed part of the population, what was cut from the film, and what it as like working for HBO.
How did you decide on this subject?
Alpert: I think everybody in New York City has seen the people who go through the garbage, picking out cans and bottles. And one day [HBO Documentary Films President] Sheila Nevins was up early and there was somebody who was up even earlier going through her garbage and across the street there was someone doing the same thing and down the block someone else doing the same thing. And she said, "What is the world of these people?" So that was the genesis. And from that point, we went out, all over New York City, and found the people to be in this movie.
So HBO came to you guys to do the short?
O’Neill: Well, we had a meeting with Sheila about another subject but right before the meeting she had had this experience and when she came in she said, "Matt, Jon – Do you think there’s a film there?" And of course we said, "Yes! Let’s do it!"
How did you decide who to chronicle? Was it just who would allow you to film them or what?
Alpert: I think we could have included 20, 30, 40 canners in this film and it would have been interesting. We tried to pick a group that was representative of backgrounds and would sort of represent all different strata of the people who are forced to go can collecting.
What surprised you the most when making the documentary?
Alpert: I think some of the stereotypes that were upturned for me, and are upturned in the film, is that I thought most people collecting bottles and cans were going to homeless, wrestling with mental illness or drug addiction, or that kind of archetype of a bum. But the truth and the reality, is that in this economy these are working New Yorkers. They’re the marginalized working poor. There’s a lot of ink being spilled and breath being spent on the middle class, in political conversations right now and in newspaper columns, but nobody is talking about the large population below the middle class. These are the people who are living on the absolute edge of society. What impressed me was that they’re not asking for a hand out and they’re not looking for anybody to give them anything. They want to work.
O'Neill: Jon and I were really amazed that a Chinese immigrant in her sixties was able to haul around 100 pounds of cans around the city and outrun me, at 34, with my camera. The strength and the work ethic of the men and women in the film is astounding.
Did you ever come into any sort of conflict with people that you wanted to film or were people resistant to you filming them?
Alpert: There was one conflict that wasn’t between us and it is in the film, which was a competition – canner against canner. So we saw that. But in terms of hostility, there’s a very strange canner in the West Village, a little bit above Houston. He seems to have mental issues because he hoards his cans but doesn’t redeem them. He will build up the equivalent of a hundred shopping carts full of cans. And he guards that territory against other canners. And one day Matt was up there with another female canner and he was very belligerent, threatened to kill her… It got very ugly. He was one of the few canners who didn’t want to be a part of the film.
O’Neill: You touch on an interesting point, which is that introducing ourselves to canners was very tricky. Because if you came up to somebody on the street and said, "Excuse me, how much money do you make collecting cans?" They’re not going to be really interested in talking to you. But if you come up and you say, "Hey, do you redeem over at the Path Mark under the Manhattan Bridge?" They’ll say, "Yeah man you know where I’m coming from." We knew the spots, we knew the relationships, we knew the supers the can collectors had relationships with. We really became a part of that world. Now everywhere we go in New York, we see canners we know, who we’ve intereacted with, who say, "Hi Matt, Hi Jon! How’s the film coming?"
Was there ever a thought of making it a feature-length documentary?
Alpert: Yeah, you know the problem is that we spent too much time in the editing room. So the more we watched it the shorter we got. It was longer. There were some very nice stories that wound up being shed. For example Walter, who lives underneath the Riverside Park, and there was a whole chapter about him and other canners who live underground like moles. Walter got reunited with his daughter, who he hadn’t seen in 16 years, and it didn’t fit in. For every story that made it into the movie there were three or four that we cut. That’s the toughest part of editing but we like to keep our shows from boring anybody, we try to make them as concentrated as possible.
O’Neill: When we started out on this film, I think we thought we were making a 75-minute or even 90-minute film. But what played best was something that was tight, focused, and condensed to its purest elements.
Can you talk about what it was like working with the HBO Documentary team?
Alpert: I would say, as a documentary filmmaker, we’re very lucky and I know that there are filmmakers who have to really work hard finding an audience, they put in an incredible amount of work going to film festivals and things like that. To basically have an organization that is proactive in terms of working with you and creatively thinking up ideas is sort of the dream that I like having.
O’Neill: And it’s twofold, really. One, we’re making a program with HBO and that short documentary is going to be seen by a wide audience and be fully supported, in a way that no one else does. And more to it, it’s not just about the distribution. Sheila Nevins, at HBO, is the most rigorous executive producer and critic to have. And she puts every moment of that film under a microscope and challenges you to make it better and better and better and better. And that’s as much of a privilege as any wide audience.
Alpert: Sometimes we suffer for that privilege but in the end we’re better for it and it makes us better filmmakers.
The Oscar-nominated shorts are now screening at select locations around the country. Check your local listings for details.