Hope Amid the Trash

“Dogtown Redemption,” an alum’s documentary about people in Oakland who scavenge recyclable goods, challenges stereotypes of the poor

scene from Dogtown Redemption

One day shortly after moving to West Oakland, California, Amir Soltani, A90, F90, heard a rustling noise coming from his yard. He peeked out the window and saw people rifling through his trash. Who would be interested in my garbage? he wondered. He found his answer down the street: Alliance Metals, now known as Alliance Recycling, a beacon of industry in the otherwise economically depressed Dogtown neighborhood. In talking to its manager, he discovered that the recycling center turns over millions of dollars in sales from recyclable goods. Those goods, the manager explained, are scavenged by “recyclers,” poor and often homeless individuals who redeem them for cash, relying on the funds as their main source of income.

To the recyclers, Alliance is more than a place they can trade in shopping carts full of bottles and cans for money; it is their community center. After getting to know some of its regulars, Soltani, who is active in advocating for human rights in his native Iran and who wrote the best-selling graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise, decided to document their lives for a film about poverty.

The result is Dogtown Redemption, which he produced and co-directed with Chihiro Wimbush. “We followed three recyclers for a period of seven years,” Soltani says. “At its core, it is a film about poverty in America, and a look at the underclass and the ways in which they act as entrepreneurs, creating jobs and eking out a living, even if it is out of trash, in order to survive.”

The documentary, which received financial backing from supporters at Tufts, premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October, where it took home the Audience Favorite Award.

Dogtown Redemption makes its nationwide debut May 16 on PBS’ Independent Lens, a program that highlights independent documentary films. Tufts Now spoke with Soltani about the film, what he hopes audiences will take away from it, and how it can add to the conversation around domestic poverty.

Tufts Now: What compelled you to tell this story?

From left, film co-directors Chihiro Wimbush and Amir SoltaniFrom left, film co-directors Chihiro Wimbush and Amir Soltani
Amir Soltani: I came to America as an immigrant after the Iranian revolution. I was offered a scholarship at Tufts, and basically every privilege that an education brings you. When I moved to West Oakland, I would see people, fellow Americans, going through my trash every day—multiple people rummaging for bottles and cans out of the same trash can. It was a level of poverty that in some ways was worse than the Third World. And then I walked into Alliance Metals, the recycling center down the street. It looked like a Fellini set. And what was so amazing about it was that by any definition, the people bringing in recyclables should have been dead—they had mental health issues, physical issues, legal issues, addiction and so on. But they were defying Darwin.

You focused on three recyclers: Jason Witt, who has been recycling since he was 13; Miss Kay, a former drummer for the polka-punk group Polkacide; and Landon Goodwin, who’s a minister. How did you meet them?

Initially, I would walk into the recycling center. I was living next to it, and it saddened me that there was this barrier. I’m in the house and they’re going through my trash, but it felt  like we’re in different countries. So my first impulse was to step out and connect, and then I went to the recycling center and got drawn to different people. Landon and Jason were almost the first people I met at the recycling center. It felt almost as though they picked me as much as I picked them.

Redemption is a word that works on multiple levels—in terms of receiving money from turning in recyclables but also in terms of being saved. What is the significance of the title for you?

On a very basic level, redemption is how much you get paid, five cents per can. These are people who are surviving off trash, and in many ways are treated as trash. It wasn’t just about redeeming them; it was about redeeming ourselves by living up to who we are as neighbors and humans and Americans. The thing is, when people have absolutely nothing, it’s like survival of the unfit. When you realize how, despite their fragility, people do pull through every day, there’s a majesty to that kind of resilience.   

You started working on Dogtown in 2008. What did you learn during the seven-year period you followed the recyclers?

We thought we were going to make a film about poverty, and we ended up making a film about love. From a distance you may look at these people as addicts or criminals, but the closer you get to them, the less power labels have. One of the joys of making the film was learning about human potential and agency.

There’s a stereotype of the poor as lazy or weak or deranged. In our film, you see that they’re actually very hardworking, incredibly resilient, unbelievably creative, and they have a lot of agency. Another thing that was really powerful was realizing how much trauma is a part of people’s isolation, whether it manifests itself as crime or addiction or mental health. Nothing subverts trauma more than connection or community.

In the film, we see the main characters struggling with health problems, addictions and housing instability. Was it difficult as a documentarian to observe and not react when you saw them dealing with these traumas?

It was always, always hard. In fact, there were moments when we did react. There were moments when Miss Kay was so sick it was unconscionable to stand above her with a camera like a huge vulture. So we took her to the hospital. If you follow people for seven years, you build a connection to them. As a filmmaker, you begin with your sense of humanity, but you also have a duty to serve the film, and make it the best film you can, and hope that it has some impact on shifting perceptions and policy. It all comes down to how we relate to each other as individuals, as neighbors and as Americans.

There’s a move afoot to close the recycling center that’s at the heart of the film. Does that affect how you approached the documentary and what you hope viewers take away from this film?

We didn’t make an advocacy film, but I think at the deepest level, it’s a question of, are we going to deny the most fragile members of our society the right to recycle even our trash? Or are we going to think more creatively about how all of us—government, business, social enterprise—can help lift the underclass out from where they’re at? And part of that is the need to work with them from where they are, not in terms of where the bureaucracy is. So that would be it, thinking more deeply about economic opportunities for the underclass, because it is excluded from most political conversations.

When Dogtown screened locally, it sparked conversation about the otherwise invisible underclass in Oakland and how to address their concerns. Now that Dogtown is going to be seen on a national scale, what do you think its impact might be?

My hope is that it will serve organizations and individuals who are in the trenches. A lot of social workers, doctors, mayors are aware of poverty, and they’re all working with it, and I think that if the film helps them, that would be very nice. If it helps the poor, if it helps humanize the conversation around poverty, that would also be a great achievement. But really, if it serves the people who are actively addressing questions of inequality, if the film empowers them, and those they serve, the recyclers and others, then that’s the beauty of being seen nationally.

Dogtown Redemption airs on PBS’ Independent Lens on May 16 at 10 p.m.

Divya Amladi can be reached at divya.amladi@tufts.edu

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