Jon Alpert, co-director of the Oscar-nominated “Redemption,” candidly admits, “As a documentary filmmaker, we sometimes mock ourselves. We go to third world countries and often the first place we head to is the big dump, where we know we are going to find people living in a desperate situation, people whose existence point out the unfair and extraordinary gap between rich and poor. I confess that I’ve done this all over the world, and I also confess that it shakes me to the bone when I see this happening in the streets of America, people who have to glean through our garbage in order to survive. We have to do something about it.”
His Best Documentary Short contender, co-directed by Matthew O’Neill, is a powerful look at the lives of canners – men and women in New York City who survive by collecting bottles and cans from garbage bins and redeeming them for nickels apiece.
The pair, who won three Emmys in 2006 for directing, shooting and producing “Baghdad ER,” contended in this category in 2009 for “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province.” That examination of the needless loss of life in the 2008 earthquake lost to “Music for Prudence,” the uplifting story of physically challenged Zimbabwean Prudence Mabhena who overcame cultural prejudice to become a musician.
Throughout “Redemption,” we follow several canners: a mother supporting her three children through canning; a former short-order chef now sleeping on a park bench; a woman who won IBM’s top award and is now dependent on canning to survive; and several others.
“It actually took a long time to gain people’s trust,” reveals O’Neill. “We had to spend a lot of time with them on the streets trying to convince them to be apart of the film. Every once in a while someone would agree to be filmed right away, but in general it took time. We went to the Chinatown redemption center four times without cameras just to get to know people and start those conversations.”
“Once we understood the lives of the canners, it became very easy to talk to them, because we understood the difficulties that they faced,” adds Alpert. “If we went onto them and started out saying, ‘How long have you been canning,’ they might not have deeply engaged in conversation with us. But if you were to ask them, ‘Where do you go to redeem your bottles,’ they know that you’re already aware of one of their major problems.”
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“This is a population that is marginalized,” continues O’Neill, “and has not been treated well by society. Gaining trust took time. Most New Yorkers walking down the street will not make eye contact with men and women collecting bottles and cans. They pretend that they’re not there; they walk right by them. I think that after being ignored like that for so long, many people were surprised that we were asking them about their lives.”
Alpert and O’Neill hope that the film will bring awareness to the growing problem of poverty in America. “I hope that in watching this film, audiences will understand that the men and women who are collecting bottles and cans are us,” admits O’Neill. “They have the same drive, the same passion, the same problems. Too often, it’s the people below the middle class who are cast out of society. I hope this film brings attention to the men and women who are struggling to survive on the edge. We could all be collecting bottles and cans eventually; it’s important that we respect those that are doing that work.”
“We don’t make anything anymore,” adds Alpert. “All the jobs that created clothing, that created food for people to eat, they’re disappearing at an alarming rate. So the whole section of society that was depending on these jobs, jobs that were always waiting for anyone who came to America or were there for people who in the past did not have a college education, those jobs are gone. We need a path to a meal and a path to a home, because when Americans have to sift through garbage in order to keep from starving, in order to keep from freezing, I don’t think that’s what our country is about.”