Jason Witt, a recycling heavyweight, is one of the three people whose lives the film crew followed for over seven years. Photo by Amir Soltani/Film still from Dogtown Redemption

“Dogtown Redemption” documentary shines spotlight on local recyclers

on May 9, 2016

Dogtown Redemption,” a documentary film shot over seven years in West Oakland, will bring local recyclers to national attention when PBS broadcasts the film on Independent Lens on Monday, May 16. The film, by Amir Soltani and Chichiro Wimbush, follows the lives of three recyclers and had its world premiere in October, 2015 at the Mill Valley Film Festival.

“National TV means that they [people struck by poverty] will be seen and they will have a voice. It is very satisfying,” director Soltani says. “It still hasn’t hit me what a big deal it is. I think I’ll fully understand it after the broadcast.”

Soltani, an Iranian-American filmmaker, moved to Oakland from Boston nine years ago. He stayed with his brother in West Oakland close to the Alliance Recycling Center, which was to become the central location of his documentary. “I could hear the rattle of the shopping carts, and whenever we’d take the trash out, people would start coming and going through the trash,” says Soltani. One time he decided to help one of the recyclers to go through the trash, and ended up following him to the recycling center. “The poverty was shocking to me, but also how creative the people were,” Soltani says, adding that he has lived in Afghanistan so poverty is nothing new to him.

Soltani started to frequent the recycling center—for some time without a camera. “I just had conversations with people,” he says. “I was like a student, exploring something. I didn’t fully understand the dimensions of it until we embarked.” Finally, Soltani presented the recyclers with the idea of making a film. People accepted it, and as the filming went on, their mutual trust grew. “You don’t choose the subject, but the subject chooses you,” says Soltani.

The film crew found out that Independent Lens, an award-winning TV series, had chosen to showcase their documentary last summer. “It was actually really strange,” says Soltani. The production team had been waiting for almost seven months to hear back from Independent Lens. At the time, one of the characters of the film, Hayok Kay, also known as “Miss Kay,” was in a hospital after she’d been assaulted and Soltani was on his way to see her. “Literally five minutes before I get to the hospital, we get the call that Independent Lens has chosen our film,” Soltani says. “It was very, very emotional and powerful moment for me. Miss Kay ended up being the first person to learn that we’d been chosen.” Miss Kay later died from the injuries she sustained in the assault.

Currently, the “Dogtown Redemption” DVD can be purchased from over 100 homeless Street Spirit vendors all around the East Bay. Street Spirit, an East Bay newspaper that covers poverty and social justice issues, dedicated its entire May issue to the documentary. “All along I was dreaming that when we come out with the film, how do we honor the people who are living on the street?” says Soltani.

He says this is especially important because Alliance Recycling Center in West Oakland, that has been a lifeline for the recyclers, will be shutting down in August, 2016. The facility is giving up its conditional use permit after many nuisance complaints from neighbors and fines from the city over blight and allegations that the business was encouraging theft and buying stolen property.

“We want the film to be the same, work for their benefit,” says Soltani. The DVD accompanied by the issue of the paper costs $10, although the newspaper alone usually only costs a dollar. The vendors can keep the money to themselves and now “they are making ten times more,” says Soltani.

Independent Lens presents Dogtown Redemption on Monday, May 16, at 10:00 pm on KQED Channel 9. Available online at PBS.org/show/independent-lens/.

2 Comments

  1. Skip Martin on May 21, 2016 at 3:58 am

    This is a wonderful project. These people deserve our respect for the great work that they do.



  2. Nancy Nadel on September 12, 2016 at 11:14 pm

    Article and film are moving with respect to our unhoused neighbors but fail to accurately portray Jay Anast at Alliance as the disgusting exploiter he is. The community never wanted this facility in 1992 when it was pushed upon us by white business men, some of whom wanted to take the focus off their own nuisance businesses. They pushed for weak conditions of approval and no requirementa to have a covered facility. It was cited across the street from low and middle income Black families long before the neighborhood changed. The sick Dickensian business model of encouraging homeless people to take recyclables from CWS containers and bring them to Alliance, raked them in millions of dollars while it paid the homeless folks a pittance. The exploiters, Alliance, their lawyer Rena Rickles and even to some extent Amir, are the only ones really making money or hoping to make money from this business. In addition, there is another walk-in recycling company on 14th and Kirkham.
    If people want to assist in housing people, our neighborhood has started a task force. We hope your neighborhood does too. And we will hope you join us when we lobby council to landbank and budget for it to solve this outrageous situation. Council declared a shelter emergency but never funded permanent housing, only services for existing shelters plus 50 more beds, which don’t solve the problem. It is a 6000 person problem citywide with 35% chronic homeless. We also want short term solutions like toilets, showers and garbage service. If you want to make a donation or help in other ways contact Operation Dignity or Healthy Oakland. Thanks for your concern.



Photo by Basil D Soufi
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