Skip to content Skip to footer

“Redemption”: Oscar-Nominated Doc Follows the Working Poor Who Survive on Collecting Bottles and Cans

Many have quietly slipped into poverty after losing their jobs, now living on the margins of society.

The HBO documentary Redemption examines New York City’s canners — the largely invisible people who survive by redeeming bottles and cans they collect from curbs, garbage cans and apartment complexes. Many have quietly slipped into poverty after losing their jobs, now living on the margins of society. The film has been nominated in the documentary shorts category at this year’s Academy Awards. We’re joined by co-directors Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, both of the Downtown Community Television Center, a community media center based in NYC’s Chinatown.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with a new documentary that looks at those who have quietly slipped into poverty and now live on the margins of society. The film is called Redemption, and it’s nominated for an Academy Award in the documentary shorts category this year. It’s about New York City’s canners, the largely invisible people who survive by redeeming bottles and cans they collect from curbs, garbage cans and apartment complexes. This is a clip from the film.

CANNER: I’m not against the rich; I’m against injustice, greed and injustice. That’s what I’m against. There are more people here than ever before. They’re all over the place, all over the place, trying to make a dollar, you know? This is like everybody is down on their luck, man, just about, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from the film Redemption.

Well, for more, we’re joined by the film’s directors, our colleagues, Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill. In 2010, they were nominated for an Academy Award for their film China’s Unnatural Disaster. They won four Emmys for the 2006 film Baghdad ER and were on the Oscar short list last year for In Tahrir Square. They work together at Downtown Community Television Center; that’s DCTV, a community media center based in New York City’s Chinatown, where Democracy Now! used to broadcast. Jon Alpert is the founder and executive director of the organization, which has won 15 Emmys, three Columbia-duPont Awards and a Peabody Award, among many other accolades.

Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, both, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us about Redemption, Jon.

JON ALPERT: Well, you live in New York City. I think we all tend to walk on the street, and the people who are going through our garbage sort of blend in, and we don’t look them in the eye, we don’t talk to them. And one day, Sheila Nevins of HBO was walking past her garbage and saw—really early in the morning, and saw somebody who was up earlier than she was, working harder than she was, and she wondered who these people were.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, you know, it is amazing, because where the Daily News used to be on 33rd Street, it’s almost like a—around 11th Avenue, is a Grand Central for the redeemers. They all get together. There’s huge numbers of people every day are there. And it’s—you’re right: Most New Yorkers never really pay much attention at all to the lives of the people involved or how they got there.

JON ALPERT: But it’s growing every day. I mean, it’s an army on our streets, because all the jobs that they used to have—remember when you were down in our firehouse, all the surrounding buildings in Chinatown were full of sweatshops, and people made things. All those factories are gone.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to one of the can collectors you feature in your film. Her name is Susan. She’s a former computer sales executive with a college degree. She explains how she was once one of IBM’s top salespeople. Well, that was in 1990.

SUSAN: I’m slow at this. When I first started, I hoped that nobody saw me that I knew.

Hey, how you doing?

In this area, there’s a lot of young people, young people with good jobs. They’re the guys with the money. I received a bachelor of science, and then I got into the computer industry. I’ve worked with Microsoft. I’ve worked with Compaq. I won what was considered the most prestigious award in the industry at the time. In 1990, I won the—I was one of the winners of the IBM Winner’s Circle, which was given to 20 of the top sales and marketing people in the country. And now I’m helping keep the city clean.

AMY GOODMAN: A clip from Redemption, an Oscar-nominated short documentary. Matt O’Neill, tell us where Susan is today and some of the other people you profile?

MATTHEW O’NEILL: Sure. Most of the redeemers are still working on the street collecting cans. Susan is lucky enough to be living in Atlantic City right now. She’s in housing down there. That was her goal. She just got priced out of New York, a New Yorker all her life. And without some sort of subsidy, she wasn’t able to afford to stay here.

You know, you earlier played a clip from President Obama saying, “Before we were “us,” we were “them,” and I think that’s something we have to pay attention to in this film, is recognizing that the men and women collecting bottles and cans are just like you and me. And they slip through the cracks. Juan, you said they were invisible. As we were making this film, and you see it, the men and women on the street who aren’t collecting cans never make eye contact with the men and women collecting cans, walk right by, time after time, in every shot. They never engage. And these are our fellow New Yorkers. These are our fellow citizens. And it’s not just happening here; it’s happening all around the country. And we have to pay attention to it.

AMY GOODMAN: And there are a lot of immigrants, as well, that you profile. Families are collecting bottles. And talk about the whole process, the stage, and also where people live.

MATTHEW O’NEILL: So, when I started this, I thought that it was mostly going to be homeless people who were working on the streets. And it turns out that most of our can collectors have homes. They are the working poor. So you have Nuve, who is supporting four kids in Sunnyside, Queens, with her can collecting. And she’s dropping the kids off at school before she heads out to collect cans, picking them up, and then spending the entire night sorting cans with her husband.

You have Lilly, who used to have a job in Chinatown. And Chinatown is still suffering from the effects of the World Trade Center. All those restaurant jobs are still gone. Lilly used to work in a restaurant. Now Lilly is on the street 20 hours a day working. I think that you couldn’t find a boss in this country who wouldn’t love to have an employee like Lilly who’s willing to put in that sort of work ethic and those sorts of hours. I mean, she never stops. She outran Jon and I consistently when we were trying to film her.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s a science how you balance—how the bags of massive number, hundreds of cans, are balanced on shopping carts as they walk through the streets. And then, where do they bring them to, Jon?

JON ALPERT: Well, they bring them to recycling centers. Any place that sells a bottle is supposed to redeem them. But a lot of places aren’t happy to have lots of people dragging clinking, clanking bags through there while other people are trying to buy toothpaste, and so it’s very difficult for people to redeem. That’s actually the hardest part of their job. And the main redemption center in Chinatown got destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, and it’s really put a lot of pressure on these very marginal, vulnerable people, and some of them have become homeless as a result of it. They don’t have any place to bring their cans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the—and their viewpoint of how the rest of the city treats them, especially the owners of these buildings, and when they go into—in front of private—it’s one thing, a public can, but when you go into the trash of a private building, sometimes you can end up with conflicts with the landowners or the supers.

JON ALPERT: You can, and so there’s a diplomatic aspect, too. They have to be very friendly, especially with the supers, because if you can basically score a big building and get access to that before the other canners can, that’s money in your pocket. So that’s also part of their job. It’s competitive, too. You have to protect your route. If they’re collecting cans from Democracy Now!, and they’re sick one day, somebody else is coming to take those cans away.

AMY GOODMAN: What were you most surprised about?

JON ALPERT: What was really surprising to me is that—as a documentary filmmaker, I’ve gone all over the world. And one of the first places—it’s almost a cliché—where we go and where reporters go is you head to the dump. And there’s the documentary, Garbage Dreams, that’s been made about the dump in Egypt; it’s a really great documentary. I went to Smokey Mountain in the Philippines, and those reports were part of the pushing of the Marcos regime out, because of inequities that they showed. And to see this in my own country shocked me, that we have an army of people who glean through the garbage. I still get chills when I think about them.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, we want to thank you very much for being with us, the award-winning directing duo. Their latest film, Redemption, is Academy Award-nominated in the documentary short division.

A critical message, before you scroll away

You may not know that Truthout’s journalism is funded overwhelmingly by individual supporters. Readers just like you ensure that unique stories like the one above make it to print – all from an uncompromised, independent perspective.

At this very moment, we’re conducting a fundraiser with a goal to raise $13,000. So, if you’ve found value in what you read today, please consider a tax-deductible donation in any size to ensure this work continues. We thank you kindly for your support.