'Canners': Film Review

Courtesy of Street Wise Films
An always-engaging look at a rarely explored piece of urban street life.
3/10/2017

Manfred Kirchheimer's latest doc interviews the scroungers who gather prodigious piles of recyclable goods for lunch money.

Octogenarian documentarian Manfred Kirchheimer, whose 1981 featurette Stations of the Elevated enjoyed a celebrated rerelease in 2014, continues his decades-long ode to New York City in Canners, a look at the anonymous toilers who gather our discarded recyclables for pennies a pop. Frank about economic realities but far from a downer, this curious and humanistic doc is sure to alter the way city-dwellers look at those who linger around trash cans, and should find admirers in limited art house release before its afterlife on video.

As you'd expect, many of the film's stars are homeless, and can tell you where in the city a person might sleep through the night without being hassled by the cops. But those may be the minority, with others engaging in this "hustle" as a way to supplement meager disability checks or to buy their kids new sneakers. At the extreme end, a couple of well-put-together folks collect their cans in nice cars while attending to other business on Bluetooth headsets.

All, though, have decided it makes economic sense to fill giant trash bags with discarded aluminum cans and plastic bottles despite being able to sell them for only five cents each — that's 20 for a dollar, with some interviewees making around $30-50 a day. (Others, we're told, can make a few hundred.)

And that's assuming they get a fair shake: The grocery stores that run redemption machines often shoo these characters away when they've put a few dollars' worth of refuse into the machines; other places pay out only half what they're supposed to. Canners with enough energy to spare push their piled-high carts out to far-off places like Sure We Can, a charity intent on getting them the most money possible.

True to his street-level focus, Kirchheimer never goes to city offices to learn how officials feel about having the most lucrative recyclables snatched up before sanitation crews get to them. But we do speak to several doormen of apartment buildings, who sometimes build relationships with individual canners — so long as they do their scavenging in a tidy way, tying up bags after they've extracted the glass and metal and plastic.

The director listens eagerly, having the conversations viewers might want to if only we didn't have our own lives to struggle through. We hear about the good jobs these people once had, the misfortunes that brought them here, the family members they've lost touch with. But no two stories are quite alike, and no one Kirchheimer speaks to is made to look like a victim. As one speaker puts it, this may not be seen as a job, but it's damned hard work — and far from the worst way one might cope in a city that is increasingly made for the rich and nobody else.

 

Production company: Streetwise

Director-Producer-Editor: Manfred Kirchheimer

Director of photography: Zachary Alspaugh

 

76 minutes

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