Arts & Events

Dogtown Redemption:Two Special East Bay screenings at Oakland's New Parkway Theater

Gar Smith
Friday April 08, 2016 - 03:42:00 PM

Saturday, April 9 at 3 PM; Sunday April 10 at 1 PM.

Dogtown Redemption is a remarkable documentary that offers a gritty yet intimate portrayal of a group of social outcasts usually dismissed as "poachers"—those nameless individuals glimpsed, if at all, on the margins of the urban landscape.

Most people look away when a poacher is at work. Some react with anger and threaten to call the police. Only a few would take time to get to know these people. Dogtown Redemption takes us down the third path, revealing the common humanity of these "disposable" people—the lowest members of urban society—poor, afflicted, suffering and homeless. This film takes us deep inside the rambunctious world of these feral entrepreneurs who stalk the back allies of the dumpster-diving/shopping-cart economy.

Dogtown Redemption deals both with the process of redeeming bottles and cans for cash but also focuses on the redemption of lives and souls. In its latter half, the film becomes a wrenching emotional experience. But hang on: the anguish will be balanced by moments of transcendence.  



West Oakland in the Lens 

Dogtown Redemption is flush with familiar landmarks. We see poachers picking through the trash outside an Office Depot and pushing carts past Emeryville's Pixar Studios. The cinematography is outstanding, filling the screen with images that are beautiful, intimate and sometimes shocking. 

When someone we've been rooting for relapses into drugs, the camera is there to catch the post-midnight sweats in excruciating close-ups, along with the sight of the needle as it digs into a vein on a tattooed forearm. This isn't the kind of movie where people fall asleep in fields of flowers. Instead, we watch as people sprawling exhausted in piles of urban debris. 

At the center of the film—and the local street economy—stands the Alliance Metals recycling plant—one of the few thriving businesses left in the blighted neighborhood. 

"I am the redeemer," says the owner, Jay Anast. "I redeem the money to the person who walks in. Where else but in America can you make $100 a day picking up stuff off the streets?" 

America's streets may not be paved with gold but, if you are really poor, desperate and determined, streets paved with trash can mean cash in your pocket. 

When it comes to "urban mining," plastic containers and glass become a form a currency. Anyone can be a poacher: no advanced degrees or training is required. Still, the fact remains: this is the sub-basement of the US labor market and the people struggling to maneuver their top-heavy carts into Alliance's shed may walk out with a ticket for a day's labor that reads: "$11.02." 

Meet the "Mustangs" of Dogtown 

Director Amir Soltani and co-director Chihiro Wimbush have captured sympathetic profiles of several of self-proclaimed Dogtown "mustangs"—people whose lives were disrupted by bad breaks and abuse followed by extended bouts of drugs and drinking. During the course of the filming, some of the scavengers improve their lives. Others wind up in hospitals. Some will die, leaving their partners bereft. 

Jason, a former gang member and one of Dogtown's top scavengers, covers up to 15 miles per "shift" and finishes the day dragging more than a half-ton of debris—"800 pounds of glass, 50 pounds of cans, 200 pounds of plastic"—over the asphalt roads to the Alliance trash-mill. 

Jason has learned how to lash several carts together to balance the load. His rattling convoy of cast-off collectibles typically takes up as much road space as a compact car. When it comes to "raking in the money," Jason is the top dog on Dogtown's alleys. As Jason puts it: "One way or another, the street's gonna pay me." 

Heather is a tender-voiced, sweet-faced former teen hooker who found redemption in Jason's company. (They are one of many interracial couples in the film who have forged bonds of support on the hard streets of Dogtown.) 

While some of Oakland's street people are mind-twisted, angry and spiteful, others are generous spirits with surprising backgrounds. 

Landon, a tall, lean man with a weathered face was once a minister. The crack epidemic pushed him from the pulpit to the garbage pits but, when he speaks, his articulate voice and calm, measured tones evoke echoes of Barack Obama. During the filming, Landon suffered a vicious assault that could have killed him. Instead, his life takes a turn that can honestly be called "miraculous." 

Frederick Griffing II is a local painter who has worked the streets of Oakland for 40 years. Fred is homeless. His "gallery" is the trunk of his car. His friend and fellow-scavenging partner is Hayok Kay ("Miss Kay"), a Korean woman in her 50s. 

Miss Kay, in her younger days, was the lead drummer for Polkacide, a wildly popular '80s punk-polka band. The filmmakers managed to find some old videos of Hayok as a beautiful and vibrant young musician performing on stage before a large crowd of fans. That life may be far behind her but Miss Kay still clutches her drumsticks and occasionally pauses to beat out snappy riffs on the rough ridges of the city's cement surfaces. 

The Church of Plastic Bottles 

The recycling center draws in West Oakland's poor like nothing else in the impoverished neighborhood. But critics and suspicious neighbors question whether this is really helping the poor. Some argue that Alliance is disturbingly reminiscent of a plantation economy. While Anast comes across as a humane and likable character who really seems to care about his clients, you're still stuck with an uncomfortable reality: Here's a carpet-bagging white guy who is benefiting from a business that profits off the backbreaking labor of the desperately poor. The profit margin for the plant's owner is quite likely larger than the split that goes to scavengers who provide the raw materials for the operation. 

Some neighbors insist that the income from recycling doesn't help the poor buy food and clothing. Instead, they argue, it "just winds up supporting the local drug economy." 

Former US Congressmember and Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums appears on camera to provide a quick history of the black immigration that brought people from the South to the Bay. Dellums recalls his childhood in Black Oakland, back when the neighborhood was a flourishing collection of prosperous black-owned businesses—bakeries, pharmacies, barbershops, cafes, and clothing stores. 

"Recycling is nothing new," Dellums notes. In the '40s, poor people were doing the same kind of marginal labor, collecting fruit at "ten cents a bucket." But those jobs are gone now, says Dellums. "Today the fruit they have to pick are cans off the street." Poor people don't vote, Dellums says, and "if people don't have the capacity to push the levers of power, then we don't talk about them." 

The Camaraderie of the Streets 

At one point, the filmmakers track down the Jason's middle-class parents and, in their clean, well-kept living room, they pull out old family photos showing Jason as a beautiful child, surrounded by evidence of a loving childhood. But Jason was blindsided by a secret shame he couldn't share with his parents. And then, speed and the streets claimed him. 

Family connections can be skewed out on the streets. As one elderly couple explains from inside a bundle of blankets gathered on a sidewalk, they've been living on the streets for 14 years and keep in touch with family via cellphone. The children have no idea their parents are homeless. 

The film is so rich in character, personality, conflict, and history that it begs the question: how did the directors, producers and film crew manage to find the time, energy, and commitment to document—and experience—the lives of all these homeless strivers? Here's the answer: They spent seven years on this project. 

The End of the Road 

Eventually, neighborhood complaints gave rise to demands that Alliance Metals have its business license revoked. At a community meeting in the Oakland City Council Chambers, Jason gives a galvanizing presentation when he steps to the microphone. Suddenly as charismatic as Leonardo DiCaprio, his plea for supporting the recycling community has Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan nodding her head in enthusiastic agreement. 

The next day, however, the Oakland Police swarmed the recycling center, blocking scavengers from entering and busting the operation for having 17 pounds of contraband wiring stamped "PG&E." On camera, Councilmember Nancy Nadel swears it's "not a vendetta," but on the street, people suspect it was a "sting" operation. 

The City would eventually act to shut down Alliance Metals. It is now set to close in August 2016. 

Hollywood could not have scripted a more complex and emotionally taut cast of characters. In most cases—and against all odds—their storylines somehow wind up at a place that's in the neighborhood of a "Hollywood" ending. 

With one tragic exception.