Amir Soltani noticed people rummaging through the trash cans in West Oakland, California, when he moved there nine years ago. Every night, he heard the rattle of shopping cart wheels rumbling up and down the streets.
“People were just holding on to these shopping carts like little life rafts,” Soltani said. “Everything they had was in the shopping carts.”
Soltani, who moved to the U.S. from Iran in 1979, is a human rights and civil rights activist with a background in journalism. After meeting one of the rummagers, a partially paralyzed man named Jefferson, Soltani wanted to learn more about these people who collect recyclables and live out of shopping carts.
He hired a cameraman and started filming. With his co-director, Chihiro Wimbush, he started following the lives of three individuals: Landon Goodwin, a former minister who struggles with addiction; Jason Witt, an “Olympic titan” of recycling; and Hayok Kay, a Korean-American woman who was a former drummer.
Seven years later, the end product is the documentary “Dogtown Redemption.” It will air on PBS stations throughout the country, including on KUED, Ch. 7, starting May 17.
For those featured in the documentary, collecting recyclables from trash cans and redeeming them for cash is a profession, “their dignity,” said Soltani.
After visiting the recycling center, Soltani was amazed by the hard work of these recyclers who face many challenges ranging from mental health and physical disabilities to addictions.
“The stereotype that we have of the poor just didn’t apply to them,” Soltani said. “They were the working poor, and they were working a lot harder than many other people.”
The documentary took seven years to complete, which Soltani said gave the directors more freedom as they were able to get to know people personally.
“When you are just shooting over a year, you really don’t get that deep sense of connection and understanding about how people turn their lives around, or not,” Soltani explained.
By following the characters for seven years, Soltani saw how some lives changed and others didn’t; some people lived, and some didn’t.
Soltani compared making a documentary to “climbing a mountain that you haven’t climbed before.” Even with the right equipment, predicting milestones in the story is challenging.
“It’s about trusting in the story and trusting in the journey that it will take you, and listening to it,” he said.
Soltani also emphasized the importance of dedication because challenges inevitably come during the process, such as lack of funding or bad weather.
But despite the challenges, Soltani said, “the most rewarding part is that you discover how much grace there is in the universe.”
Many individuals helped make the documentary, including the Utah-based Semnani Family Foundation and executive producers Geralyn Dreyfous and Khosrow Semnani, who are both from Utah.
The “Dogtown Redemption” team will also be collaborating with a newspaper in California called Street Spirit, which reports on homeless issues, as part of an initiative. The team will be donating free copies of the documentary to over 100 homeless vendors. The homeless people who work with these vendors will be able to sell the DVDs for $10 each.
“It’s also a way of showing that there is a lot of room for social enterprise,” Soltani said.
With changes in the economy, he wonders what will happen to these “fragile and vulnerable” people. As an activist, he hopes to raise awareness surrounding these individuals’ situations and include them in conversations about the future.
Soltani also hopes the documentary will help viewers to not judge the poor so quickly and to understand their stories.
“Oftentimes, a part of our own humanity is lost when we judge them,” Soltani said. “I think sometimes it’s more powerful to relate to people, rather than judge them, and try to put oneself in their shoes and think about how their story connects to ours.”
For more information on the documentary, visit dogtownredemption.com.