A panning shot in Manfred Kirchheimer’s new documentary Canners scans Midtown rooftops and a billboard that reads: “Manhattan: All You Need Is a Million Dollars and a Dream.” Used to be in this town — at least according to the racketeers at the New York State Lottery — that you needed a mere dollar and a dream. Things change, I suppose. Or do they?
When Kirchheimer burrows down to street level — just beyond the shimmering new glass ziggurats in a city that has been High Lined — he trains his focus on those on the periphery: in this case, the men and women who collect cans and bottles for the five-cent refund.
New Yorkers see canners every day — often with their baroque shopping carts piled impossibly high — but most skirt past and look away, or into phones, preferring not to engage. And that’s exactly the New York where Kirchheimer is most comfortable. (In the era of Whole Foods, Kirchheimer lingers over a Pathmark sign.)
If Canners is not as formally ravishing as past works like Short Circuit, Bridge High and Stations of the Elevated — his New York recalls the lens of Helen Levitt and the sensibility of a George Bellows — it’s revelatory all the same. This film shows that canners (he interviews 18 of them, from different backgrounds) are industrious, resourceful and hardworking. They have their territory — office space, essentially — and colleagues, schedules and deadlines. Some are homeless, others aren’t; some have criminal records for minor offenses, others don’t; some discuss families (broken or intact), others don’t say. Some are from the area, others are immigrants. They’ve been harassed by troublemaking teens, especially in the 1980s and ‘90s, and more recently by cops.
None live on the money they earn from cans, but it supplements the little they have, often from disability checks. Most are older, late 40s to early 70s, and the majority seem to have had some bad luck, though they haven’t let it define them. David Jones, 49, who attended Southern University, the HBCU, and his friend Rickey Demouchette, 50, lost everything after Hurricane Katrina. Two of the younger and best-spoken subjects in the film, they both have the same disability (they won’t say what it is) and went on to Atlanta, loading planes for UPS, but that work took a toll on their health. Peanut Nelson left her husband and eventually was left homeless. “It’s a long story why I left,” is all she’ll say about it.
Kirchheimer’s subjects express no shame about what they do, even if they sense our collective (averted) gaze. “I’m from uptown,” Jones says, “what they call ‘the hood,’ and up there it’s not really acceptable. They see you as a bum … my own people.”
They have, if not dreams exactly, goals. Jones wants to go back to school and work with AIDS patients. Luiz Santiago wants to go back to Ponce, Puerto Rico. Sammy Peralta, 70, wants to buy a Vespa and move to Miami. Kirchheimer doesn’t pity them, nor do the canners pity themselves. If anything, he celebrates their resiliency. Which is fine. But an unasked question lingers: If they’re willing to work, if they’re capable — and they are — why is this all that there is for them?
Directed by Manfred Kirchheimer
Opens March 10, Metrograph