Film Review: Canners

A cheery but astute and socially aware street-level examination of the women and men who scour New York City for cans and bottles.
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Garrulous yet modest, overflowing with theories and stories, the New Yorkers in Manfred Kirchheimer’s Canners are happy to turn to his camera and let fly. And why shouldn’t they have a lot to say? Their profession is one of the most narrowly defined in the modern city. Most people have seen canners marching their carts down the street, overflowing with plastic bags of bottles and cans like eco-conscious Vikings returning from a good pillage. But few have probably given them much thought. Meanwhile, even though canners can work in pairs or groups, they are mostly a solitary bunch, with lots of time to think, and so lots to say when somebody like Kirchheimer shows up.

A veteran of the New York documentary scene, Kirchheimer (Spraymasters) provides just a light scrim of context with some beautiful shots of some of the city’s statelier buildings. Titles announce that the city is patrolled by thousands of canners, who gather their sacks full of empties in order to redeem them for five cents a pop. Even more than the sight of the canners pushing, pulling or heaving their gargantuan bags around the city, though, the work-reward ratio is ably summed up by the theory-a-minute Dominican raconteur Sammy, who counts it out for the camera as he sorts: “Twenty is one dollar!”

The economics that Canners presents are fairly daunting, particularly when one sees how far the canners have to haul their hard-fought gains to redemption centers in frequently out-of-the-way locations. But the relatively meager haul in dollars appears to be offset by several benefits. As several of the canners say, they make their own hours and work outside. As Eddie, who’s been canning since getting out of prison in 1988 points out, it’s “tax-free!” Several canners show an undeniably affecting pride in their work, listing their long hours, the strategies they have to employ (making nice with superintendents and doormen so as not to get chased off), and even little things like tying up their bags nice and tight.

Kirchheimer’s focus is more on these insights into character than the broader context that their work exists in. He keeps the camera as unobtrusive as possible, though the fourth wall gets smashed pretty definitively when he agrees to hold a parking space for a canner (yes, more than one of them has their own vehicle). The workers at a redemption center speak glowingly of the canners, as women and men who are down on their luck but still striving to get by. Several of them have tough tales to tell about how they ended up bagging discarded cans and bottles, from lost jobs and addictions to even the ravages of Katrina.

For the most part, the canners are as generous of each other and their circumstances as Kirchheimer is of them. In part, that may have to do with how many of them aren’t homeless and don’t use canning as their primary revenue. Several have either disability or Social Security, more than one has children, and some are just looking for a few extra dollars to get through the month. For them, canning knits together a couple more strands to bolster the frayed American safety net. It also lets them do so with a tough dignity that speaks to a particularly New York brand of entrepreneurship. One of the best side-hustles going here is the soft-spoken David Durrah, who plays piano in a jazz trio on a regular basis. His key presence later in this short and soft-spoken documentary could be read as a retort to the sorts to people who might view the canners as bothersome indigents crowding up the streets.

Canners doesn’t quite get at anything that Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s Oscar-nominated short Redemption didn’t say in sharper, slightly more elegant form back in 2013. But Kirchheimer’s affection for his subjects is so genuine, without straying into treacle, that it easily carries the film.

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