Two years ago, I had the good fortune to see a screening of the documentary film Scrappers at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. An independent production following two Chicago men and their families as they struggle to make ends meet collecting and selling scrap metal to local scrapyards, my first impression of the film was “The Hoop Dreams of recycling.”
Hoop Dreams, which follows two aspiring basketball players from Chicago, is one of the most acclaimed documentaries ever made. Scrappers is less famous, but shares an approach with the earlier film. Scrappers captures the daily routines of collecting scrap remarkably well, and also shows the challenges relating to affordable housing in Chicago and life as an undocumented immigrant. It also, as it was filmed in 2008 both before and after the economic collapse, shows how vulnerable these workers are to market forces. (Its other achievement, through both the scrappers’ work and comments by Chicago residents who interact with them, is a pointed criticism of the ineffective public recycling system in Chicago. The film was shot before the 2011 managed competition program started, but the frustrations voiced in this film remain relevant.)
It’s a wonderful film. I had the good fortune to invite the filmmakers (Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak, and Courtney Prokopas) to screen and discuss the film at one of my Roosevelt University seminars, and they also screened it at a benefit for the Chicago Recycling Coalition in the summer of 2011. Other opportunities to see the film depended upon either purchasing DVDs directly from the filmmakers or being in a town where they had scheduled a screening, as it did not have a distributor.
This week, the film is accessible to a wider audience. Scrappers has been released for digital rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon Instant. A handful of documentaries about waste-trade work around the world are worth seeking out (among them Waste Land and The Gleaners), but Scrappers is as good a depiction of how scrap markets in the United States work as I have seen in a film. It deserves a larger audience, and I am glad that more people now have the opportunity to see it.