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Saturday, May 18

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Feature Tue Sep 09 2008

Recycling the American Dream

Scrappers is a feature-length documentary that tells the stories of three Chicago men who comb the city streets in search of people's discarded-yet-valuable resources, such as iron and aluminum. Still in production, the film is the focus of a benefit being held Friday, Sept. 12 from 6-10pm at The AV-aerie, 2000 W. Fulton. In addition to scenes from the film, there will be video installations, words from the filmmakers and subjects, and musical performances by Scrappers composer Frank Rosaly, the Jonathan Crawford/Frank Rosaly/Michael Zerang percussion trio and the Friction Brothers.

Filmmakers Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak and Courtney Prokopas met at the University of Chicago, and worked on two other films before Scrappers. To find out more about the film, we sat down with Ashby, a Washington, D.C. native who drew inspiration from his general interest in recycling, his travels to Third World countries, and his desire to make a human connection with a person straddling social divides. Always "super-curious" about scrappers, or -- as he explains his movie's subjects, "those guys w/trucks full of refrigerators" -- he had begun noticing an increase in articles on these scavengers of the city, mainly focusing on theft. Eager to learn more, he, Kolak and Prokopas set out to see if they could find a story.

The trio spent six months researching scrappers and spending time at scrap yards, looking for a lead. Trying to get scrappers' attention proved difficult; the yards are busy places, with merchants focused on getting in, selling their finds, getting out and getting paid. The crew met many of the scrap yard regulars and proposed filming them, but they were either not interested, didn't understand the project or were afraid "because of the climate," Ashby says. Through contacts of contacts, meeting people on the street, cold-calling and "a Sicilian guy from Cicero who had fingers in a bunch of pies," the filmmakers finally found the subjects of their movie: Oscar, Otis, and Miguel.

Scrappers follows Oscar's scrap metal hustle and family life for a year.

Originally from Honduras, Oscar lives in an all-Hispanic neighborhood, at times spending 14 hours in a day searching for scraps. In the film, he tells a kindly neighborhood woman who offers him a broken dryer (she lacks faith in the city's recycling program) that he has a wife and children in Honduras, and a "woman" and child in Chicago. The trio met Oscar while trying a strategy of putting notes in scrap trucks. "He came up to us, was interested in what we were doing - it was providential," Ashby says.

Otis, who hails from Englewood, is 73 years old and has 12 children. He's been "hustlin'" all his life. In his blue truck loaded down with junk, he takes family members on the road with him, dumpster-diving while they watch in amusement. In the film, we see him playing quasi-archaeologist, prying the valuable from the detritus that won't sell: Wire from TVs, metal from doors. He strives for $15-$20 an hour, but competition's steep.

The filmmakers encountered Miguel on the street. He's a recovering drug addict who has done the 12 steps and now scours the South Side for scraps.

The film gains much from its verite style - i.e., no narration and no intervention from the filmmakers, just the subjects left to tell their story. Many scenes are shot from an inside-the-truck perspective, which makes the viewer feel as though they're along for the ride. Other shots focus on the trucks wheeling down the alleyways, their cargo reaching towards the blue sky.

Recycling facility owner Joel Clayman displaying inventory. The documentary sheds light on the role of urban scrappers in the global economy.

Verite also enables the filmmakers to explore a variety of issues -- recycling and environmental conservation, race, immigration, and planning and zoning - without getting preachy or pedantic. The most obvious issue on the table is recycling, long viewed by those of closed mind as a "privileged person" concern. Scrappers easily defeats that notion: The mounds of metal lodged in these guys' pickup truck beds serves as stark evidence of the amount of waste taking place in our city. Yet their conservation efforts get lost in the media's portrayals of scrappers as thieves of copper wiring and municipal supplies. Not all scrappers are the same. "For one, we all pay," Otis laments to the camera.

The subjects in Scrappers haven't met each other yet, but have seen each other in video footage. "It's important to show the subjects what we're doing, show them short pieces," Ashby says. "They're super-curious about the other strategies employed. They'll say, 'That's too much work, or, 'I never thought of that.'" The benefit might serve as a scrappers' meet-up, if they all decide to attend. "People really need to hear from those people," Ashby says, "and hear what it's about face-to-face, which doesn't happen too often."

There is a $10 suggested donation for Friday's event at the AV-aerie. RSVP required to

About the Author:

A native of Johnstown, PA, Lauri Apple is a contender for the title, "world's most renowned bag lady," thanks to her somewhat popular (at times) website, FoundClothing. Lauri has a JD and doesn't know why, but it will take about 30 years for her to pay it off, and that worries her. Her favorite cities are Prague, Pittsburgh, Austin and Chicago. When she's not looking through people's trash, she's either painting, taking pictures, or making/thinking about making cartoons about her weird life.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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