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DocGeeks » Interviews » Bottles and cans, what inspired short documentary Redemption?

Bottles and cans, what inspired short documentary Redemption?

Still from RedemptionAhead of the Oscar ceremony this Sunday, DocGeeks spoke to the directors of Redemption. This film, nominated in the category Best Documentary Short, follows  people who survive by collecting cans and bottles from bins and redeem them for money. Not your everyday Oscar material.

John Alpert and Matthew O’Neill spoke to DocGeeks’ reporter Jacob Harbord about their drive and tactics applied while making their Oscar nominated short documentary Redemption. The first thing on everyone’s mind: What made you want to make this film?

John: I’ve lived and worked in Chinatown for 40 years and I’ve watched as our neighbourhood changed. All the buildings surrounding our media centre used to be full of garment factories and they would be working 24-hours a day. All those factories are gone and the only noise you hear now is the clinking of cans and bottles. Everywhere you look in NYC now you see people going through the garbage. Sheila Nevins, the head of documentaries at HBO, came downstairs in front of her apartment one day and saw somebody going through her garbage and there was somebody else going through another pile of garbage across the street. She asked, who are these people? When she asked that question to Matt and I, we were on the streets the next day.

Matt: We need to explain why we approached this differently from other filmmakers because of our background. We work out of the community media centre called DCTV in Chinatown, and Chinatown is a centre for can and bottle collectors in NYC. Coming from a community activism/filmmaking background, we’re really part of the community, so we went out and started spending time on the street getting to know can collectors and how they work. Eventually, we knew where they collected and where they redeemed, and we’d say ‘Hi, they’re collecting Heineken bottles in the supermarket on 3rd street’. That immediately tells the collector we know what’s up, because only a few places accepted Heineken bottles for redemption, and they knew they could talk us. One of the things you’ll see is that this is a marginalized community, it’s a community that has suffered a great deal and outsiders are looked upon with suspicion. But, by the time we were really making this film, we were insiders, not outsiders.

Why did you focus on the people that you did?

John: We tried to choose a representative sample, one that would show you the diversity of the canning community, because that’s one of the surprising things. You wouldn’t expect to find a middle-aged, former middle-class, well-educated Jewish woman combing through your garbage because that’s the only way she can survive. You wouldn’t expect to find someone with the ingenuity of Jamie, who has invented his special cart with all these attachments. It’s not in the film, but he rides around on his bike with a can-scooper so he doesn’t have to get off his bicycle to fill up his trailer.

I felt the tone swung between hopeful and hopeless – what were you aiming for?

Matt: We were aiming for the truth! But I think you’re right, some days we walked away saying: ‘Wow, it’s unbelievable what that lady can do. She’s supporting 4 kids and making it happen, she may be gleaning through the trash but she’s making a go of it.’ And other days you come back in at 2am and they’re still sorting cans; you think, is this the new American dream? There was a time when people came to the US, had a job in a factory or restaurant, and could take a course to hook themselves onto the first rung of the ladder. Now they’re gleaning through the trash. It’s strange to think of that as the new America.

John: I remember being shocked when I was in school when we studied the work of Jacob Riis, who did photographic essays on the Lower East Side. One of the things that made me want to do this type of work was seeing the effectiveness of his efforts in forcing society to consider how it needs to become fairer, how we need to give people equal opportunities. He showed people living in tiny apartments, 5 or 6 people to a room. When I filmed Lilly at her home, she had the most tired face I’ve ever seen in my life, and she lived in that 1 bedroom apartment with 8 people. It’s the same thing and we’re going backwards.

Why did you make ‘Redemption’ a short and not a feature?

Matt: We certainly have enough footage that we could have made a feature but, as we edit, we always try to keep it as consistently engaging as possible. We want the audience to really feel they’re living with the can collectors. We’re lucky not to have to hit a target length, so when the film felt right we stopped editing, and it happened to be 35 minutes. 35 minutes is just the right length to intrigue an audience, to introduce them to the neighbours they’ve never really looked at before and never taken the time to talk to.

How do you feel about being nominated for an Oscar?

John: We really like it when people pay attention to our programmes and we’re honoured to be nominated. This is an extraordinarily competitive year and all of the nominated programmes are certainly worthy of the award. We go to these things in Hollywood and everybody assumes we’re star-struck, but in our work we’ve interviewed Saddam Hussein, spent quality time with Fidel Castro, been in the mountains of Afghanistan with warlords, and some of our news reports have actually changed history. Hollywood is a different world for us, but not anything that has us walking around with our mouths open, because we’ve been around so many people who’ve been doing real things every single day.

What impact do you think all the media attention surrounding your film will have?

John: I don’t really know the answer to that question. We’re really calling attention to a deep and systemic problem in the US that seems to be growing worse, and to some degree appears to be ignored. Maybe it’s being ignored because we’re at a place now where we can’t change this anymore. Once you’ve exported all these jobs abroad, I don’t know how you get them back. It took a century to build up America’s infrastructure and about 10 minutes to disassemble it. The train has left the station and I don’t know if there’s another train coming. I don’t know if I’m smart enough to fix it, but we are capable of calling people’s attention to it so we can have a conversation.

Matt: I hope when people watch this film, they remember how close we all are to collecting bottles and cans. Right now in New York State, more than 50% of households are living paycheck to paycheck. That means half of our community is two weeks away from being on the street, gleaning and redeeming. When you see people going through the trash, remember that they’re just like us.

Redemption is nominated for an Oscar in 2013, tune in to the live broadcast of the ceremony on Sunday 24 February to find out who will take home the golden statue.

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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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