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Filmmaker to screen “Redemption,” story of Oakland recyclers

on March 3, 2009

By Samson Reiny/Oakland North

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Jason Witt is an Olympian of recycling—he can recycle up to 800 pounds of bottles and cans a day. “He’s the captain of his ship,” said Amir Soltani, a writer and activist who has been following Witt for the past year as part of his upcoming documentary on West Oakland recyclers. Soltani said there is a lot of physical effort and finesse involved in manning a cart the size of Witt’s, which, at the end of each day, is stacked with overstuffed bags protruding several feet into the air. “He has to read the road, know every pothole and how to maneuver around them,” Soltani said. “He has to be able to turn his cart without tipping it. It’s not pretty if it tips.”

Witt is one of the characters in Soltani’s upcoming film debut, “Redemption: Stories of the West Oakland Recycling Community,” which focuses not only on the lives of recyclers—running the gamut from those who sell cans for residual income to others whose livelihoods are dependent on collecting the trash of others—but on the community’s varied reactions to them and to Alliance Metals, the recycling facility that keeps them in business. The Graduate Theological Union’s Justice Collaborative will be hosting a director’s cut preview of the film this Thursday at the First Christian Church in Oakland. Recyclers featured in the movie will be on hand to offer further testimony about their experiences, and staffers from Poor Magazine and the Homeless Action Center, along with various representatives from the community, will also hold discussions to promote public dialogue about poverty.

The first-time filmmaker became especially interested in exploring this issue after meeting a recycler. He vividly remembers meeting Miles Jefferson, a regular who makes his rounds near Soltani’s West Oakland home. Jefferson is partially paralyzed on one half of his body as the result of a stroke, but still manages to gather his bottles and cans. “I was stunned and mesmerized by him,” Soltani said. “He had this tremendous dignity.”

Indeed, that is one of his film’s main messages—for those to whom recycling is a way of life, there is tremendous discipline involved. Jason Witt, the Olympian recycler, not only has to balance his cart with finesse; there is other strategy involved because of the intense competition out there for recyclables. Recyclers must be good at cultivating relationships with businesses and residents, and at establishing a route. Witt knows when and where to be at a certain place, usually to collect before someone else does. Sometimes he is deft and camouflaged because he doesn’t want to draw public attention. Soltani said people often don’t think of recyclers as productive. “There’s this tendency to want to criminalize them,” he said, “but many of these people don’t want handouts, and they’re not waiting for them.”

The presence of recyclers, and of Alliance Metals, is a contentious one in West Oakland. For many, including immigrants that speak little English and those without the skills to be competitive in an already beleaguered job market, cashing in on the recyclable goods is their only means of survival.

But some residents and business owners want Alliance Metals shut down. They say some recyclers urinate in their yards and bring drugs to the area—others say the lack of public restrooms leave them no choice. Another faction argues that closing the company will only increase crime in West Oakland because recyclers who suffer from drug addictions, left with few alternatives, will find more nefarious ways to support their habits. Some from both sides of the spectrum blame Oakland city councilwoman Nancy Nadel for not reducing blight in the area. Fingers are sometimes pointed at developers and tenants of new condos like Magnolia Row—maybe the reason why poor people have no where to go is because affordable housing is disappearing. “Besieged is the best word that describes the community,” said Soltani. “Everyone is a little bit stuck.”

In addition to portraying the daily lives of recyclers, Soltani interviewed Nadel, Metal Alliance owner Jay Anast, and several nearby residents, all with varying points of view. “There are all kinds of barriers that prevent us from seeing each other,” Soltani said. “This film is not an art form but a life form where a community can reconnect and solve a problem none of us can solve alone.”

The recycling controversy is just a segment of the greater plight that has ravaged the historic district. Soltani said that many of West Oakland’s problems today—poverty, poor health, and high crime, to name a few—represent the residual effects of a long, tumultuous, and yet proud struggle for justice. “There’s a long history of fighting poverty and inequality,” Soltani said.

West Oakland is a well-known incubator for social change movements. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters established their West Coast office at Fifth and Wood Streets and became the first African American-led group to sign a contract with a national company. After World War II, the 16th Street railroad station became synonymous with the African American escape from segregation in the south. In the 1960’s, the Black Panthers used West Oakland as their base of operations.

But these notable efforts are, in large part, the work of a community that has been prompted into bravery and resourcefulness in order to survive. “Racism, poor public planning, a weak political base, capital flight…there are so many aspects to this that I can’t do it justice,” Soltani said. Yet through all of the challenges, Soltani is amazed that people, like the recyclers, are still managing to survive. “Without trying to sound crass, there’s a magic to West Oakland that’s not lost,” he said. “It’s beautiful that people are finding a way to make a living out of nothing.”

Thursday’s screening of the preview of “Redemption” will be open to the public, but Soltani says he’s still not sure when the final version of the film will be ready. He’s shot most of the footage, but there are issues he wants to delve into more deeply. “I’m looking into more funding. There’s so much more that could be explored. If I could go on forever, I would,” he said, smiling. But what is certain is that he wants the movie to evoke a change in awareness. “Redemption doesn’t just mean redeeming cans and bottles,” Soltani said. “It’s about redeeming people’s lives.”

The GTU Justice Collaborative Presents: Redemption: Stories of the West Oakland Recycling Community. Thursday, March 5th, 4:30-8:00pm. 111 Fairmount Ave. Oakland, CA.Suggested donation for admission $10. Groups of 10 or more $5 per admission. No one will be turned away. Child friendly. For more information, call Tyson at 510.525.7587 or email justice.collaborative@yahoo.com

1 Comment

  1. Beth C on October 17, 2009 at 9:18 pm

    An interesting study would be the youth.
    Kids 10 & 11 years old hanging on the streets
    most of the day. The children are traumatized
    at such a young age. They have no guidance,
    nobody to teach them right from wrong. Not going
    To school, when the only way out from under this
    Oppression is education.



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