Scrap America: a conversation with Scrappers filmmaker Brian Ashby

0 Posted by - November 30, 2012 - Conversations, Features, Friday Film Pick, Screen

A beautifully shot and tenderly rendered documentary, Scrappers quietly follows two Chicago residents as they eke out a living from the salvaging of metallic refuse. It’s not fist-in-the-air advocacy filmmaking for the downtrodden, but in its own way Scrappers gets under the skin, forcing a closer look at the stark indexes of inequality present in contemporary America. With a subtle grace and empathic approach this gorgeous film challenges the notion of the “American Dream” — the mainstream media and Hollywood fairytale that with a whole lot of hard work and ambition anyone can climb to the top.

As anyone who has visited or lived in America very-well knows, that top is a small club of elites, clutching their privilege while turning others’ miseries into their inflated salaries. It’s why the mythology of mass accessibility of wealth and riches in America is called a dream, and this film, despite its sleepy sequences of rattling trucks drifting through dimly-lit snow-swept Chicago alleys, is very much non-fiction.

The dreams of scrappers are the dreams of America’s poor and marginalized — dreams of equality, dignity, fairness, justice, and with those, the basic elements of a comfortable life. The scrappers search for, collect and sell all kinds of scrap metals, working hard for their own scraps, that is, diminishing pay that further alienates them and their families from those further up the chain, but their hard work is matched by a positive attitude that shames most in the middle classes.

Avoiding a folksy caricature as well as polemic against America’s capitalist-class system of segregation and oppression, Scrappers feels more like a poem you have to let settle in your own time. The film has recently been made available as VOD at iTunes and Amazon, and we took a moment to chat with Brian Ashby, one of the filmmakers behind the project.

Art Threat: How did you come across this particular story?

Brian Ashby: We (co-directors Ben Kolak and Courtney Prokopas and myself) were fascinated by the figure, literally, of the scrapper in Chicago: the pickup truck with constructed walls and rattling junk speeding down the alley, often glimpsed in passing through a fence or over a garage like a shark fin. In 2007, scrap prices were in a ludicrously inflated bubble, fueled by Chinese growth and trade, and it had caused a scrapping bonanza here, in a city with a layout that’s very easily traversed by its alleyways.

We hoped that spending time with scrappers would shed light on a number of broader economic and social problems. The film ended up touching largely on immigration and housing, and it was and is interesting times in Chicago for those issues. In a period of unprecedented deportation, immigrant mobilization has happened on a large scale in Chicago; it was also the end phase of the city’s Plan For Transformation, which demolished all high-rise public housing, shuffling thousands of people and changing the dynamics of many neighborhoods.

It took a long time to meet Oscar and Otis, the two characters, and gain access to their lives. We knew almost instantly that they had electric personalities, rock-solid commitments to their families, and cunning scrapper-senses. Over three years we ended up recording some very tough times that tested their spirits, and how they coped and came out the other side.

You take a somewhat non-interventionist mostly observational approach to your subject, and avoid commentary or too much information. Can you explain why you prefer this style of filmmaking? How do you see documentary as impacting audiences differently than say a news article or a book?

Not to get too academic, but I’ll be the first to acknowledge that we do intervene, by choosing what to film and not to film, and by recording our subjects’ reactions to our particular presence. Unlike an observational filmmaker like Wiseman, we use interviews and voiceover, and we give a few facts about the prices of scrap metal to set the stage.

That said, the lack of a script, narrator, statistics or similar devices means that we can count on the characters to say things we could never have made them say, that they will do things we couldn’t have made them do. And thanks to a longitudinal approach – filming lives lived over several years – the world also changed in ways we couldn’t have predicted. We didn’t know we were making a film about the economic crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, until it happened, of course.

I prefer cinema that’s about looking, and what you learn when you watch human behavior. No barriers to entering the world of the film. There is nonfiction writing that works toward the same ends (Katherine Boo’s articles and books comes to mind), but it’s usually not the goal, as the imaginary space of writing provides so many other opportunities to explore.

Your film is a haunting portrait of survival and poverty, but it also seems to be saying something more about America, can you comment?

Thank you.

Following what I said about the hands-off form, people who expect an essay or an exposé have sometimes been dissatisfied with the film, as we don’t give them one. But I’ve been amazed by the breadth of interpretations that have emerged from viewers, particularly extrapolating to bigger issues about American life.

For example, some people have responded to this class of scrappers and their economy as an exemplar of laissez-faire entrepreneurship in an over-regulated country, an opportunity to privatize recycling and create green jobs for the poor, removing barriers for those with a “bootstraps” attitude. Others have seen the opposite, a race to the bottom in a globalizing economy that creates anonymous, uninsured workers for the dirtiest & dangerous jobs, dependent on fluctuating financial trends, part of a continuing backslide from the dignity of middle class work and its protections.

It depends what you bring with you into the theater, and the events that come to pass in these characters’ lives could take you down either of those roads or several others. I can’t say what it says about America because I don’t know. But hopefully, in putting a spotlight on these two families’ lives, we dispel some stereotypes and raise a number of urgent questions for all of us.

What’s next – what are you working on now?

For the past two years, Scrappers co-director Ben Kolak and I have been co-producing a web series of short documentaries on Chicago businesses, subcultures and landscapes, called The Grid. Ten episodes are there now, with several more on the way.

Other feature projects are in the works, but it has been a relief and a new challenge to work in the short form. The Grid is about the intersection between journalism and documentary, making a foray into the strange new world of non-centralized news and web TV, and is (more so than Scrappers) tightly focused on Chicago. Check it out.

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