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Movie Review: The Scrapper

Portrait of a recycling collector named Joe

Like a modern-day Sisyphus, Joe bursts into the first frame of Jonathan Olshefski‘s documentary The Scrapper. At first we don’t see Joe’s “boulder,” but he describes it to us: A shopping cart loaded down with 100 to 120 pounds of scrap that he’s dug out of the neighborhood trash. Joe is initially framed from underneath in a powerful close-up of his head and shoulders. He performs his duty boldly and proudly. He is not resigned to his fate like in the Greek myth and he repeats his task simply because other people will keep discarding their unwanted and — to them — worthless junk.

Thankfully, Joe uses the phrase “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” so we don’t have to sound cliché inventing it for him. The documentary alternates between verité travels with the cheery scrap collector and sit-down interviews — usually on somebody’s stoop — in which he ruminates on his lot in life. During one of the sit-downs, Joe tells us that he’s very passionate about scrapping, that he loves the thrill of the hunt. But he doesn’t need to say that explicitly. We see the joy in his work during his travels. He’s like an antiques dealer given free reign to grab whatever he wants out of a 14th-century European castle. However, instead of Europe he cruises the mean streets of Kensington, a rough neighborhood in the northeast section Philadelphia.

Joe doesn’t just pick up plastic bottles and aluminum cans. He grabs still functioning children’s toys, perfectly good furniture and, most valuable, precious metals. With his trusty magnet, plus keen eyes and ears, Joe can determine the metallic composition of any object. In one key scene, he picks up a a serving tray, runs through all the possibilities it could be made of and excitedly reveals that it’s made out of copper, one of the most precious metals he could have found. Another time, he drops cutlery on the cement sidewalk to determine if it’s made out of silver by the tinkling noise it makes. It tinkles, so it is.

Extremely chatty and personable, Joe comes across as an incredibly charming, nice guy. But during a few choice moments, he proves that he’s tough enough to brave the dangers that lurk while combing through garbage from midnight to the wee hours of the just barely rising sun. Through words, he swiftly disarms certain guys who are looking for a fight and the drunk homeless guys trying to butt their way into the film … not that Joe hasn’t had a few libations himself before embarking on this night’s scavenger hunt. And if push ever came to shove, one gets the impression that he could more than hold his own if a confrontation ever became physical.

But there’s a battle weariness to Joe and, at times when Olshefski gets him to let his guard down, we find out why. He’s a veteran of two wars: Grenada and the first Gulf War. He’s also a veteran of two marriages. And, strangely, Joe tells a long story about the time when he held a powerful position in a major corporation. He had money. He had success. Sounds like he had his life on track. Well, a different track, anyway.

However, we don’t know if Joe is being the unreliable narrator of his own life. The documentary is structured as if the entire film takes place on one night of scrap collecting. Joe is a garrulous guy and he talks about having drinks with friends, so he must be a social person. But we spend the night mostly alone with Joe. Through the camera’s non-obtrusive style, we feel as if we are hanging with Joe ourselves, as if we are his personal confidant for the evening. Joe tells us a lot of stories. Does it even matter what’s true or not? They’re good stories, nonetheless.

One of Joe’s favorite memories is the time he got married barefoot on the beach. Although the marriage has since ended, Joe wants us to know that he’s a romantic guy. And Olshefski has crafted a sensitive, romantic portrait of him. At the end of the film, Joe is your new best friend. The guy who’d give you the shirt off his back to help you out, or if not the one he’s wearing, then a perfectly good used shirt he’s picked up along the curb.

(Editorial Note: This is a review of the full-length version of Olshefski’s The Scrapper, which runs about thirty minutes. I previously wrote about and embedded a shortened version that screened at the 2008 Chicago Underground Film Festival in this post.)


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