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Canners. A Film by Martin Kirchheimer

Distributed by Grasshopper Film, 12 East 32nd St., 4th Floor, New York, NY 10016

Directed by Martin Kirchheimer
DVD , color, 77 min.
High School - General Adult
Poverty, Sociology, Ecology

Reviewed by Sharadha Natraj, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, School of Architecture and Urban Planning

Date Entered: 11/27/2018

Award-winning documentarian and film professor Manfred Kirchheimer is known for his focus on the city and for bringing varying elements of urban life to audiences. Canners explores yet another aspect through those who are mostly invisible or ignored—the many who collect discarded cans and bottles for redemption.

The film opens with a familiar sight in New York City, of people pushing carts with enormous trash bags of discarded cans and bottles piled high, mimicking the tall buildings that rise far above them. As it progresses, we see them in the midst of the city’s activities, walking endlessly through neighborhoods in search of these items that are worth five cents each. Over the course of the film, they talk to Kirchheimer, who is off-camera, sharing some stories of why they collect cans.

The value of the documentary lies in the lessons that are learned from the stories the canners tell. People going through trash bags on the street elicit a judgmental, visceral reaction. The immediate impulse is generally to look away and try to ignore the reality of why they must go to extremes to find sources of cash. Kirchheimer exposes the many reasons why people find themselves in such a predicament, and ultimately, provides many starting points for discussions on issues facing society today, including poverty and homelessness, environmental issues, and social behavior. If there is one detail about Canners that leaves the viewer wanting more, it is that it lacks a deeper look into the lives of the canners and the struggles they face on a daily basis. All of them seem indefatigably positive in their outlook and perhaps extracting how they maintain this would have been a valuable lesson for us all.

While it is not a unique film (Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s short documentary about the same topic, Redemption, was nominated for the Academy Award in 2013), Canners” contributes to the understanding of the unique circumstances of city life and will help viewers remember the humanity in all members of society, regardless of economic and social privilege.