In 'Redemption,' Collecting Cans To Survive

Host Audie Cornish talks with Matthew O'Neill about his Oscar-nominated short documentary, "Redemption." The film is about New York City canners — people who survive by collecting cans and bottles and redeeming them for change.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

There's a rapidly growing group of people in New York City seen by almost everyone but known by almost no one: Canners. They eek out a living collecting cans and bottles, redeeming them for a nickel apiece. And they're the subject of Matthew O'Neill and Jon Alpert's film "Redemption," the second of the Oscar-nominated short documentaries that we're profiling this week.

My co-host Audie Cornish talked with O'Neill about their project. And, as we find out, Canners often see the world through what they can redeem. For them, a two and a half dollar cup of coffee costs...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REDEMPTION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Fifty cans.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Two-fifty.

WALTER: Walnuts and aromatic herbs coated in dark chocolate, that's 450 cans. A hundred million cans for this townhouse.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A hundred million cans for a townhouse.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Matthew O'Neill, tell us a little bit more about Walter, this person who is a canner.

MATTHEW O'NEILL: It was wonderful to hear Walters voice there. Actually, as I was taking the subway up to the studios, I saw a canner in the subway and I was thinking of Walter 'cause I thought, well, that's 2.50. That's 60 cans to get into the subway. That's what you'd need.

Walter was living on the streets for years. Very sadly, he passed away about six months ago. He was living underneath the West Side Highway and was hit by an Amtrak train. And...

CORNISH: My gosh.

O'NEILL: ...so we mourn the loss of Walter because I think Walter would've really enjoyed that this film is getting the attention that it is, 'cause he thought it was important to let us into his life and show the world how canners are living on the streets of New York.

CORNISH: I'm so sorry to hear that. One of the things that is so striking about the film is the characters, people like Walter, they interview each other.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: You have them essentially asking each other about their lives.

O'NEILL: It's their community and they talk to each other on the street as they're working. And, unfortunately, too many New Yorkers ignore them. So since no one else is asking them questions and talking, they're interacting with each other.

When Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, asked John Alpert and I to make this film, she had all these questions about who these people were. What were their backgrounds? 'Cause as a New Yorker, we see them on the street every day. And I'm sorry to say, until we made this film, I didn't spend a lot of time talking and asking about their lives.

CORNISH: And for people who may not be as familiar with this, describe what someone like Walter, you know, looks like when they're coming down the street after a long day of canning.

O'NEILL: Walter and many of the characters in the film can 18, 20 hours a day. And it's brutally difficult work, so their bodies are broken. And you can hear them, the clink of the cans coming down the street. Canners know when they hear the clink of a bottle going into a garbage bin. And we know when the bags are drawn down the street, we hear them scraping along and our ears perk up.

CORNISH: Now, there's also this sense of loss in hearing people in the movie describe what they had been doing before canning became a way of life for them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "REDEMPTION")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Before you started doing this, man, what were you doing before?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Actually, I was a cook in a restaurant.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Me too, man. I was a short order cook, man, downtown.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Yeah. Yes.

You said you came straight from Japan or used to work here before?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Downtown, World Trade Center.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Used to work in the World Trade Center?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I received a Bachelor of Science and then I got into the computer industry. I've worked with Microsoft. I've worked with Compaq. And now I'm helping keep the city clean.

CORNISH: It's very much a community that of people who have kind of crossed a class border or crossed some sort of line.

O'NEILL: In New York City, there are no jobs for the people that are being marginalized and the working poor. Those jobs don't exist anymore. Fifty percent of New Yorkers are living paycheck to paycheck right now, and that means that there's a lot of us who are two weeks away from digging through the trash to collect bottles and cans.

CORNISH: Many people in the movie also mentioned the competition and that there's this kind of growing sense that they're more and more people, side-by-side with them, competing for these cans. Did you actually end up finding that to be true?

O'NEILL: Absolutely. You see in the film a real fight that happens between Susan and another canner. And in the two and a half years over which we filmed "Redemption," the number of canners on the street probably doubled. Downtown, in Chinatown, where our community center is, there used to be lots of jobs for the Chinese. There used to be factories and sweatshops and there was manufacturing - people making things. And all those jobs are gone. And now, the many, many of the people who used to work in those factories are on the street collecting bottles and cans.

CORNISH: Matthew O'Neill, he's one of the directors of the Oscar-nominated short documentary "Redemption."

Matthew, thank you for speaking with us.

O'NEILL: Audie, thanks so much for having us on.

BLOCK: That's Matthew O'Neill talking with my co-host Audie Cornish, as part of our conversations this week about Best Documentary Short Films.

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