Don’t Look Now: The Person Sifting Your Trash May Be an Ex-Coworker

Behind carts full of cans and bottles, ‘gleaners’ are largely invisible. The Oscar-nominated documentary ‘Redemption’ hopes to change that.

Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill's documentary Redemption.

Living in the shadows of the big city, people who scrape by on nickels earned from recycling cans and bottles step into a spotlight in Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s documentary Redemption. (Photo: Courtesy of HBO Documentary Films)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

At a recent Academy screening of their film Redemption, filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill didn’t need to remind Academy Award voters that all of this year’s Oscar nominees in the Best Documentary Short category reflect some of the most pressing issues of our times.

Redemption profiles a number of New York’s gleaners, men and women who rely on the discarded cans and bottles of others for their livelihoods.

“We’re coming out of a screening, and who walks by but a man with a shopping cart collecting bottles and cans,” O’Neill tells TakePart. “When we were at that Oscar luncheon on Monday, I don’t think anyone was coming through the valet service with their shopping carts full of cans, but I would bet someone has a relationship with the people that toss out the trash. This is a national phenomena that men and women who want work have no choice but to glean.”

Alpert and O’Neill spent two and a half years in New York’s canner community, but they don’t take credit for the idea. That, they say, was the brainchild of Sheila Nevins, the president of documentaries at HBO, where the 35-minute film will air later this year. Nevins found someone rummaging through her garbage one morning and believed there might be more to that person’s story.

“People rarely interact with them, barely look at them, never make eye contact. It’s like the city doesn’t want to see the working poor in our midst.”

Revealing the backstories of seven gleaners, Alpert and O’Neill discovered there was a lot more. All were prey to circumstance. The economic downturn cost some their jobs, ranging from short order cook to marketing for IBM. Others faced insurmountable odds as immigrants.

The filmmaking duo had previously chronicled the impact of factory closures in the documentaries Dirty Driving: Thunder Cars of Indiana and No Contract, No Cookies: The Stella D’oro Strike. The gleaners’ stories were sadly all too familiar.

“We talk about ‘the middle class this, the middle class that.’ There’s a really big class that we’re not paying attention to,” says Alpert. “We need to start doing something about all the people that no longer have places to work.”

That lack of attention seems almost willful. Itinerant recyclers are both ubiquitous and conspicuous with aluminum cans and glass bottles spilling from the bags they’ve piled high on their carts or slung over their shoulders.

O’Neill discovered firsthand how the trash-redeeming population is ignored. When the filmmaker couldn’t bear to watch one of Redemption’s subjects, Lily, push her shopping cart any further up Houston Street in Manhattan, he offered to do it for her for a little bit. He immediately discovered two things: How strong Lily was, and a shift in perception from those around him.

“As our characters are canning, the rest of the city happens around them,” says O’Neill. “People rarely interact with them, barely look at them, never make eye contact. It’s like the city doesn’t want to see the working poor in our midst. And if there’s something the film can do, it’s to bring a greater awareness to the people who are just clinging onto a living by the tips of their fingers and to realize how close we all are to that too. More than 50 percent of New Yorkers are living paycheck to paycheck. Most of us are a few mistakes away from collecting bottles and cans.”

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