HBO subscribers should mark October 14 down on their calendars, that will be the official debut date for the highly-praised documentary ‘Redemption’. The story follows the “canners,” individuals who barely survive the street of New York by collecting empty bottles and cans and dropping them at redemption centers for five cents each. Former short-order cooks, computer-sales executives and factory workers, these men and women turned to canning after the economic downturn eliminated their livelihoods.
Amidst the ongoing debate over income disparity in America, the timely documentary REDEMPTION looks at this growing army of jobless New Yorkers, whose treasures are found in trash, when it debuts MONDAY, OCT. 14 (9:40-10:20 p.m. ET/PT), exclusively on HBO. The film was one three nominees for this year’s Documentary Short Subject Oscar debuting back-to-back Oct. 14 on HBO, along with “Mondays at Racine,” debuting at 9:00 p.m., and “Open Heart,” which debuts at 10:20 p.m. Other October presentations in the HBO Documentary Films fall series include “Valentine Road” (Oct. 7), “Life According to Sam” (Oct. 21) and “Seduced and Abandoned” (Oct. 28).
Before turning on the cameras, Emmy-winning filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill spent months on the streets getting to know the canners and gaining their trust. Despite their nontraditional livelihood, many canners have worked beside each other on sidewalks for years, forming a unique sense of community.
Walter, a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran, has been a canner for a decade, watching the number of canners soar as odd jobs that once supported the poor have disappeared. Like many unemployed canners, he equates the odds of getting hired for a conventional job with “hitting the lotto.” Joe, another canner, says that everyone seems to be down on their luck right now, while Susan, a former computer-sales executive who turned to canning when she couldn’t get by on Social Security, notes that the young people in the city hold the good jobs. “What are we supposed to do?” asks Nuve, a devoted mother intent on giving her children a brighter future.
The days are exhausting and the nights are dangerous for canners, especially those like Walter, who sleep in public places such as park benches or even the redemption centers. Lilly, a Chinese canner who speaks limited English, feels fortunate to have a home, but shares her tiny one-bedroom apartment with six others and frequently works through the night. The reality of life as a canner is so harsh that one ex-con considers arrests to be “rescues,” because incarceration means three meals a day, a bath and a job in a kitchen.
Says Susan, “I guess it’s survival of the fittest,” a sentiment echoed in the words and actions of the men and women who struggle to get by on the tiny sums the redemption centers offer them. Many have canned for years and have no reason to remain hopeful, yet they are, rising each day to sift through the waste of the city and survive another day.
“In the best of times for some, there is a growing army of New Yorkers who survive scouring the sidewalks and sifting through our city’s trash,” note Alpert and O’Neill. “As politicians debate whether life in New York is a tale of two cities, REDEMPTION shows the Dickensian conditions at the growing bottom of our city’s economy.”
Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s previous HBO projects include 2012’s “In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution”; the Emmy-winning “Baghdad ER” (2006); the Emmy-nominated “Alive Day Memories: Home from Iraq” (2007) and “Section 60: Arlington National Cemetery” (2008); the Academy Award-nominated “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province” (2009); and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award winner “Wartorn: 1861-2010” (2010).
REDEMPTION was directed and produced by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill; edited by David Meneses; original music by Jonathan Zalben; cinematography and audio by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill. For HBO: supervising producer, Jacqueline Glover; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.