IndyKids kid reporters had a chance to sit down and talk with journalist and documentary filmmaker Jon Alpert. Together they discussed Jon’s new documentary, Redemption, about people who collect cans on the streets of New York City.
JON ALPERT: OK, so what do you kids—what do you kids want to talk about today?
INDY KID: We have a few questions to ask you.
JON ALPERT: I’m ready.
ALEJANDRA: My name is Alejandra, and I’m 11 years old. My first question is: What inspired you to make this documentary?
JON ALPERT: Thank you, Alejandra. So you asked, what inspired us to make this documentary? And the original idea didn’t come from me. It came from—it’s OK. It came from Sheila Nevins. Sheila Nevins is the head of HBO documentaries. And one morning, very early in the morning, because Sheila has a very strange schedule—she stays up all night long watching films. While you kids are sleeping, while I’m sleeping, Sheila is watching films all night long. And so, she woke up in the morning, and she’s downstairs, and she hears “clink, clink, clink.” And she sees somebody going through her garbage. And she said, “Well, why is somebody going through my garbage?” And she looks across the street, and there was somebody else clinking through the garbage and collecting cans and bottles. And coming down the sidewalk was some person. Have you kids seen these people with these big bags of cans?
INDY KID: Yeah. Every day.
JON ALPERT: Every day, right? It’s pretty yucky, don’t you think? If you were going to make a living going through garbage, would you like to go through the garbage? Talk about that.
INDY KID: No, because it’s very dirty.
JON ALPERT: Uh-huh. And what else?
INDY KID: And you don’t get paid enough.
JON ALPERT: So, this is a—this is a pretty yucky job. And so, Sheila wondered why, in her little area, there were so many people doing it. And you kids, if you look around the city, we’ve all seen the people that collect cans and bottles. But have you ever talked to any of them?
INDY KID: No.
JON ALPERT: OK, OK. So it’s possible to talk with these people, but we don’t. OK, part of it is you’re kids, and your parents teach you one very important thing, which is?
INDY KID: Don’t talk to strangers.
JON ALPERT: Don’t talk to strangers. OK.
INDY KID: That’s a lie.
INDY KID: Yeah.
JON ALPERT: Your parents don’t tell you that?
INDY KID: They—no, they don’t. “Don’t talk to anyone suspicious” is what—
JON ALPERT: Suspicious, ooh.
INDY KID: Not all strangers; especially the suspicious.
JON ALPERT:OK. So, kids, if you saw somebody, who you didn’t know, who was rummaging around in your garbage, would they be a suspicious person?
INDY KID: It depends if you’ve seen “Redemption” or not.
JON ALPERT: That’s a very good answer. Ah-ha! So, we began talking to the can collectors, and we began finding out who they are, where they came from, and why they’re canning. So, who else has another question?
INDY KID: I do. Did you have to pay any of the people to interview them?
JON ALPERT: When you’re making a documentary, you don’t pay anybody—you shouldn’t pay anybody, OK? Because this is not a movie. You’re not acting. You’re trying to capture real life. And you want to make a transaction in which money is involved, because if you pay somebody $5 for canning, maybe then you’ll say, “Well, normally you don’t go into this really dangerous place to can, but it will be really interesting for the film. I’ll give you $10 if you go in the dangerous place.” And you begin to distort reality. The difference between documentaries and fiction is what?
INDY KID: Documentaries capture what’s actually going on, while fiction is acting.
JON ALPERT: Right.
INDY KID: And it manipulates it.
INDY KID: I was just wondering—I was just wondering, as in, like, if any of the people wouldn’t want to talk because they’d be missing out on canning anything. That’s what I mean.
JON ALPERT: Well, that’s a tough part, you know, because it’s very competitive, canning, and it’s very territorial. So, for example, Lilly, the Chinese lady, one night stopped to talk to us, and she had about 20 bags that she needed to go through, and while she was there talking with us, some other person came in and started going through her bags, because she wasn’t defending her territory. So it was a little bit difficult for the canners sometimes. And that’s why when we talked with them, we sort of had to move along the streets and keep up with them. And even though we weren’t pushing the carts and we weren’t carrying the bags, we realized how hard they worked and how fast they worked, because it was difficult for us to keep up with them. OK, any other questions?
INDY KID: How did you manage—how did you—did you have to build relations with any of the canners when you made the movie? How did you manage to get them on film?
JON ALPERT: Uh-huh. Well, OK, the toughest place was in Chinatown, because, in general, Chinatown has always been a hard place to film. For many years, lots of people here in Chinatown were here illegally. They were picked on by the rest of society. And so, they did not like outsiders coming in, and they didn’t like people with cameras coming in. And when we made our movie in Chinatown, 19—don’t tell me—76, ’77, it was really a big deal, because nobody had ever made a movie about Chinatown before. Nobody knew how the different associations worked, how immigration worked, how the factories worked. So, it was a very popular movie, because people learned a lot about Chinatown. They didn’t know anything about Chinatown before. Because what do we know about Chinatown? What do you know?
INDY KID: Chinese people work there.
JON ALPERT: Chinese people work there.
INDY KID: It’s right next to Little Italy.
JON ALPERT: It’s right next to Little Italy. But do you know, for example, about the living conditions in Chinatown and the working conditions and stuff like that?
INDY KID: They’re bad. They’re very, very cheap, bad apartments.
JON ALPERT: Mm-hmm.
INDY KID: They’re usually—like, in Hangzhou, they share a lot of apartments with a whole bunch of families. And that’s—I’ve seen a lot of things like that in Chinatown.
JON ALPERT: Mm-hmm.
INDY KID: Shared apartments.
INDY KID:A really bad place.
JON ALPERT: Yeah, I mean, it’s not a dangerous place, but the people are living very, very close to the edge. They don’t make a lot of money. They have to pay a lot for their apartments. Some of them got smuggled into the United States and have to pay back the smugglers $40,000. So, here in Chinatown, a couple things have happened, OK? All these—not that one over there. That’s a homeless shelter. But the building next to it used to be all garment factories, where Chinese ladies made clothing. And there used to be dozens of factories in each building, and they were working 24 hours a day. So you’d walk down the street, even at nighttime, and you’d hear—
INDY KID: That’s why they made such big windows.
JON ALPERT: Maybe.
INDY KID: The employers didn’t want to put—
JON ALPERT: Lights.
INDY KID: Spend a lot on their electricity bill.
JON ALPERT: Uh-huh, could be. And you’d walk down the streets at night, and you’d hear “rrrrrrrr, rrrrrrr.” And it would be these little Chinese ladies working all night long—again, for very, very little money, the same type of little money that the canners make.
INDY KID: Yeah, like the Apple company in China.
JON ALPERT: Right.
INDY KID: Shanghai.
JON ALPERT: But it was here. And they were jobs in the neighborhood. They weren’t great jobs, but they were jobs. About 20 years ago, they began shipping all these factories, where?
INDY KIDS: China. China.
JON ALPERT: To China. And so, everybody—
INDY KID: [inaudible] to be paid less.
JON ALPERT: Even less.
INDY KID: Like one cent a day.
JON ALPERT: That’s correct.
INDY KID: And then, like what they’re doing in India.
JON ALPERT: Mm-hmm.
INDY KID: And then—and then—
INDY KID: Half a penny a day.
INDY KID: But how do you make half a penny?
JON ALPERT: So—so, what happened—
JON ALPERT: Excuse me. Kids, what happened to all the people who worked in the factories?
INDY KID: They lost their jobs.
JON ALPERT: They lost their jobs. And so, if you are sitting in New York and you don’t have a job, who’s going to pay your rent? Who’s going to buy your food?
INDY KID: No one.
JON ALPERT: No one. And so they had to go out and start canning. And that’s why there are so many Chinese down here that are canning. But they’re a little bit ashamed of this. Because would you like your grandma to be digging through the garbage in order to be able to support herself?
INDY KID: No.
JON ALPERT: Seriously. Is your grandma here?
JON ALPERT: OK. So, what do you think? I mean, if grandma had to go out every single day and dig through the garbage 20 hours a day, would you like that?
INDY KID: No.
JON ALPERT: No. Nobody likes that, OK? So they’re a little bit embarrassed and a little bit ashamed. And so, it was difficult for us to make friends at the Chinatown redemption center. OK, so what we did is that every day we didn’t bring the cameras at first. We brought tea and—you guys ever been to like a Chinese—
INDY KID: Bubble tea?
JON ALPERT: Not bubble tea.
INDY KID: [inaudible] teas.
JON ALPERT: No. You’ve been to the coffee shops or the big dim sum restaurants where—
INDY KIDS: Yeah. Yeah.
JON ALPERT: —those little snacks and stuff like that, like pork buns and things?
INDY KID: Mm-hmm.
JON ALPERT: So we would bring tea and snacks. And we would just sit around and talk. And I can’t speak Chinese, but I know the names of all these foods. And they think it’s kind of neat that, like, a guy like me knows all the funny names of these foods. So that made me a little bit of an insider. And the other thing is that we also brought somebody from DCTV that speaks the local dialect. And they like that, too. So then, all of a sudden, after a while, we show up there one day, two days, three days, we’re not outsiders anymore. And they began to like us, and they saw that we were there to learn about them, and we showed a lot of respect to them. And so they all became my friends. A couple more questions?
INDY KID: How many documentaries have you made?
JON ALPERT: I can’t count how many documentaries I’ve made. I’ve just made lots and lots of them. And so, I would say—
INDY KID: How long— a hundred.
INDY KID: How long have you focused on it? How long have you, like, been just mainly trying to make the documentary?
JON ALPERT: Uh-huh. This documentary took about two years to make. So, that wasn’t the only thing we were doing during that time. We were working on some other projects. But if we worked on this and didn’t work on anything else at all, a year. It would take us a year to do it.
INDY KID: Also, why is it mostly based in Chinatown, the redemption center?
JON ALPERT: Well, that’s the redemption center here, but I think what’s happened is that as the regular jobs have disappeared, more and more people have to can. And compared to even when we were first starting the documentary, it seems like there are two or three times more people on the street canning. And they’re everywhere. They’re in your neighborhood. They’re in Chinatown. This was interesting, because we knew nobody could get into this canning center. Nobody understood what a significant part of the local culture and employment this canning was in Chinatown. OK, a couple other questions, kids? Then we’ve got to go.
INDY KID: Yeah, I have really long question to ask you.
JON ALPERT: OK.
INDY KID: Do you think that if all—like, a lot of canners, like maybe a hundred of them or something, protest against Mayor Bloomberg, do you think that would work, if more than just one of them, like, came up to him and told him?
JON ALPERT: Yeah, you know, if they all took their cans and bottles, and they all marched on City Hall and left their cans and bottles on the doorstep there, people would certainly pay attention to that. So, I was a—I used to be a taxi driver, and I was organizing the taxi drivers, trying to fight for better working conditions, because they paid us very little money, about the same that canners make right now. They gave us broken-down cars, that you step on the brake and nothing happens, and people were getting hurt. There were a lot of criminals who were getting into the back seats of taxi cabs and stealing the money. So it’s like this. And we had to get into these cars that didn’t work every single day. Very, very dangerous. And so, trying to get all the drivers to work together to get better conditions was very hard, because taxi drivers are like canners. If you’re driving a taxi cab, and you’re driving a taxi cab, and you’re driving a taxi cab, and I’m standing there on the corner, what are you guys going to do?
INDY KID: They’re going to race after you.
JON ALPERT: That’s right.
INDY KID: I’m here first!
JON ALPERT: Right. They compete with each other. OK?
INDY KID: They might even crash into each other.
JON ALPERT: They might even crash into each other. So it’s very difficult to get them to work together, because they’re used to competing against each other. OK? So, nothing worked, and nothing was changing. But then one day I took my camera, and I made a little videotape that showed all the things that were wrong and all the things that we could to do to improve it. And everybody watched it, and they said, “Wow! OK, I’ll fight for that!” “Yeah, I’ll fight for it, too!” And everybody joined together. And all of a sudden, we became strong. All of a sudden, we began to get better cars. All of a sudden, they had to raise our pay. It was great. And I saw that by using the camera, I could improve things, and I could make our life better, in the same way that when you kids write about something in your newspaper, if there’s something that you don’t like and you want to have changed, you can use your paper to try and do that. So, before we go, if there was one thing that you wanted your newspaper to change, and you got to write about it, what would it be? And we’ll go around the table, OK? You want to think about this? Now, all of a sudden, Alejandra has a good idea. Yes?
JON ALPERT: Racism. And so, you would write what?
ALEJANDRA: That we should all work together, no matter what color we are.
JON ALPERT: Uh-huh.
ALEJANDRA: And we should not judge people about their color.
JON ALPERT: Right. And you could also give examples of things that you don’t like, right?
JON ALPERT: For example?
ALEJANDRA: People making fun of people’s color and where they come from.
JON ALPERT: Mm-hmm, right.
JON ALPERT: OK. That would be a good thing to do.
INDY KID: We could just convince people to stop making nuclear and atomic bombs.
INDY KID: I want to change—we should always respect the laws and always listen what the president says.
JON ALPERT: And he has one last thing that he wants to change.
INDY KID: Vigilantes and cops.
JON ALPERT: So, I’m going to say—I’m going to say one thing. What’s really cool about being in the newspaper business, like you kids are, or being in the TV business, like I am, is that it gives you the right to ask people questions and to talk about things that you are thinking about.