Leavening TV ‘Reality’ With Jolts of Hardship | New York Times

Leavening TV ‘Reality’ With Jolts of Hardship | New York Times

HBO Presents ‘Redemption,’ About Struggling Can Collectors

Neil Genzlinger | Oct 13, 2013

On Thursday, Lifetime rolled out “Million Dollar Shoppers,” a braying reality show about gratingly annoying people who shop for some of the New York area’s super-rich. On Monday night, HBO offers the documentary short “Redemption,” a delicate portrait of those bedraggled people, some of them homeless, who walk New York City streets collecting cans and bottles for the nickel deposit.

Watching one, then the other, might make you apoplectic. “Redemption” is by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill, whose earlier films — like “Section 60,” about the families of war dead — showed that the most powerful documentary technique can be simply to observe. Here that approach is applied to the people many New Yorkers explicitly try not to observe as they pass by on the street, pushing carts and lugging bags full of cans and bottles. We hear their voices and see how they live.

“Fifty cans: $2.50,” says a 60-year-old named Walter, holding a Starbucks drink. He likes to describe such things in terms of how many cans he’d need to buy them. Later, in front of a town house with a for-sale sign, he says, “A hundred million cans.”

These “canners are well aware of how they are viewed by the rest of the city.

“It bothers people to see us digging in the trash,” one woman says. “What are we supposed to do? There’s no work.”

At one point “Redemption” walks through a one-bedroom apartment where a canner lives with six other people. Even given that the people on “Million Dollar Shoppers” may be caricatures of the actual rich, it’s disheartening to see that one client’s clothes-filled closet doesn’t look all that much smaller.

“I hear angels,” Barbet, one of the personal shoppers, says ecstatically about this closet. “Angels are singing, and there’s a white light, and it’s the closet light.” Are you sure those angels weren’t crying?

“Redemption,” unlike “Million Dollar Shoppers,” has moments of humanity: the canners, despite occasional fights over territory, often look out for and support one another. There is also humanity in two other documentary shorts that HBO presents with “Redemption” on Monday night: “Open Heart” and “Mondays at Racine.”

“Open Heart” is about an effort to provide surgery for children in Rwanda who have rheumatic heart disease. The operations are free, courtesy of the Italian medical organization Emergency, but they are performed at the Salam Center in Sudan, which means a long trip for the children. The film, by Kief Davidson, follows one group’s journey. The doctor behind it all, Gino Strada, isn’t on camera much, but you have to admire his effort.

“Mondays at Racine,” by Cynthia Wade, starts out at a beauty salon in Islip, on Long Island, that offers free services to women with cancer, but it’s not really about the salon. It’s about the women who go there for support, a series of miniportraits that reveal their fears, struggles and strengths. It’s been a long time since breast cancer was a subject no one mentioned, but even so, discussions of it rarely get as personal as these vignettes.


HBO, Monday night at 9:40, Eastern and Pacific times; 8:40, Central time.

Directed and produced by Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neil; David Meneses, editor; original music by Jonathan Zalben; cinematography and audio by Mr. Alpert and Mr. O’Neill. For HBO: Sheila Nevins, executive producer; Jacqueline Glover, supervising producer.