Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill's Redemption closes with a shot of a poor woman dragging her shopping cart, freighted with bulging plastic bags of cans and bottles, down Wall Street. It's not exactly subtle, though I'm hard-pressed to imagine another ending for a documentary whose very subject is the grinding endlessness of poverty. Alpert and O'Neill trail various canners, New Yorkers who collect cans and bottles and redeem them at grocery stores or recycling centers for five cents apiece, and the portraits they collect show how tough life can be when you have to dig every nickel out of a Dumpster.
There's Walter, a grizzled old Vietnam vet who's been canning for eight or ten years and explains, "This is a full-time job." There's Susan in Manhattan, a former white-collar worker at Microsoft who can't make ends meet on her Social Security check and has to protect herself against a bullying Chinese woman who steals her cans. There's Hassan and Lily, an Egyptian man and a Chinese woman in Chinatown who've grown close out of necessity more than love. And there's Nuve, a Hispanic mother of three in Sunnyside, Queens, who packs her two older ones off to school and takes the youngest along as she scours the alleys. "It's honorable work no matter what people say," she protests, though the days are so long she's prone to tears.
Interviewed for the website Gold Derby, Alpert and O'Neill reported that getting canners to open up to them took a while. "Most New Yorkers walking down the street will not make eye contact with men and women collecting bottles and cans," said O'Neill. "They pretend that they're not there; they walk right by them. I think that after being ignored like that for so long, many people were surprised that we were asking them about their lives."
The filmmakers don't often get inside the canners' homes—some of them don't have homes—but when they do, the movie is sobering. Lily works all night collecting cans and returns to a one-bedroom apartment she shares with six other people; sitting in the kitchen, she lowers her voice to speak to the camera, and you can feel the terrible constriction of living in such close quarters, the awful dead-of-night weariness. Redemption gives you a chance to meet people who've fallen over the edge into poverty, and realize how easily any middle-class person might follow them. As a title at the beginning of the movie advises us, canning is a growth industry in America.