February 18th, 2013 | Comments Off on Redemption’s success could pave the way for more observational documentaries
The Oscars are looming and, while the name on everyone else’s lips is Beasts of the Southern Wild, here at DocGeeks we’ve been feasting our greedy little eyes on some of the short docs that are lined up for Oscar glory.
Redemption is the latest offering from esteemed directors Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill in which they investigate the lives of the growing ranks of New Yorkers forced to recycle cans they find on the street to support themselves. By taking us on a tour through this industry and the diverse range of people working within it, the directors deftly situate this phenomenon within the broader instability of the US economy and create a disturbing image of what the American dream looks like to increasing numbers of trash collectors.
Within 35 minutes we meet people drawn from all walks of life, from all socio-economic demographics, who are forced into ‘canning’. There’s the Rastafarian who transports his cans on a custom-built bicycle; the Chinese immigrants who would previously have worked in restaurants; the Japanese IT worker unable to find a new job after his office was destroyed in 9/11; and the well-spoken Jewish lady that disturbs those New Yorkers who expect only those from the most disadvantaged corners of society to carry out such work. As we follow them through their back-breaking workday and hear their stories of bad luck and hardship, not only do you sympathise with their terrible circumstances but you gain great respect for their tenacity and ingenuity in the face of gigantic obstacles.
Redemption’s success in avoiding the monotonously pitying tone of many social issue docs is rooted in the cinema verite approach that allows a more nuanced (and, dare I say it, truthful) representation to emerge. To create such an engaging film through this rigidly observational approach takes heroic amounts of patience, but clearly pays great dividends. I felt the most powerful scene was where a lady had several large bans of cans stolen form her in broad daylight by another canner. Another canner immediately jumps to her aid and offers to help her recover the lost earnings, and in this brief interaction we see the incontrovertible power of compassion and solidarity to overcome predation and exploitation.
It’s exactly this profundity which makes Redemption so special, the sense that the lives of these canners are a microcosm in which the forces shaping the world have become concentrated and intensified. Fingers crossed that Redemption triumphs at the Oscars and we will see a new wave of gritty, painstaking, and progressive observational docs coming to our screens soon.
Written by Jacob Harbord
Jacob recently completed the MA in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester and currently works as a qualitative researcher by day and filmmaker/film journalist by night. His favourite documentaries are The Last Train Home, Hoop Dreams, and Encounters At The End Of The World. He’s also a big fan of VICE and loves long sessions watching short documentaries.
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