Skip to main content

Oscar-Bound: 'Redemption' Directors Matthew O'Neill and Jon Alpert

By KJ Relth

In the weeks leading up to the Oscars®, is taking the time to talk with the filmmakers whose films have been nominated for Academy Awards in the documentary short and feature categories. Below is an interview with Matthew O'Neill and Jon Alpert, directors of the short film Redemption.

Synopsis: They are New York City’s gleaners—struggling at the edge of our society. You see them on almost every street corner in America’s richest city—thousands of jobless New Yorkers combing through the garbage, scooping through the slime. The prize they pursue? Empty bottles and cans. Each discarded container worth five cents at the redemption center. What got you started in documentary filmmaking?

Jon Alpert: We wanted to change our neighborhood and make it better. My wife and I were doing community organizing in Chinatown and the Lower East Side of New York City in the 1970’s—and failing to make a dent. But when we took one of the early, primitive black and white porta-pak cameras and made short films that documented the horrific conditions of our local schools, factories and hospitals, things began to change. There was no such thing as cable TV or the internet—so we bought a used post office truck for five dollars, put two black and white TV sets on the side of it, and played our docs on street corners. This helped mobilize our community and showed us the power of documentary films.


D: Being a former New Yorker, I’m embarrassed to say how rarely I noticed people canning in my neighborhood. Once you started noticing them everywhere around the city, what made you think that their story would make a good documentary?

Matthew O'Neill: You are not alone—many New Yorkers don't notice the men and women canning all across the city. But one New Yorker who does is Sheila Nevins, the head of HBO Documentary programming, who walked into a meeting with us one day having just seen yet another canner working her neighborhood and asked, "Who are they? What is their world?" Jon and I leapt at the opportunity to explore that world for her. That's how the project started. And once we spent a little bit of time on the streets with the men and women you meet in Redemption, we didn't want to stop filming.

Photo credit Tom LeGoff

D: We see the canners working on the streets in both warm and cold weather conditions. How much time did you spend following them around the city?

MO: They're more consistent than the mail—"neither snow nor rain nor heat" stops them. They're canning to survive, and can't afford a sick day or a rain delay—they're all living too close to the edge. We started filming in the beginning of 2010, and were still filming this past summer, so almost two and a half years immersing ourselves in the world of canning.


D: Some of the canners are openly hostile towards those they see as a threat to their livelihood. Based on the way the film portrays these interactions, one would think that it would be quite difficult to start a relationship with people in this community. What were some of the hurdles you encountered when filming this project? How did you overcome those obstacles?

JA: Parts of the Chinatown community have a cultural and a historic aversion to cameras. Many of the Chinese who were canning were former factory and restaurant workers who had lost their jobs as factories were moved offshore and Chinatown businesses dwindled after 9/11. Although they are proud hard workers, some felt some stigmatization and shame because they are forced to make their living going through the garbage. But our community media center (DCTV) has been based in the Chinatown community for 40 years. We have strong roots in the neighborhood, strong trust—and people on our staff and who are involved in our community programs know the local dialects. This combined with the respect we showed all canners enabled us to work in Chinatown and other parts of the city.

MO: We spent a great deal of time on the streets and in redemption centers NOT filming—many documentary filmmakers will tell you that the "getting to know you" process is sometimes best done without a camera. This is a population that is marginalized and has not been treated well by society. Gaining trust took time. Most New Yorkers walking down the street will not make eye contact with men and women collecting bottles and cans. They pretend that they're not there; they walk right by them. I think that after being ignored like that for so long, many people were surprised that we were asking them about their lives—and showing them the respect they deserve. They are our friends and neighbors.

Photo credit Tom LeGoff

D: Who are some filmmakers who have inspired you throughout your careers? Was there a style of filmmaking that you kept in mind when making Redemption?

JA: The list is too long to enumerate—so I would like to honor and say thanks to the people that have supported our work and enabled people to see it: David Loxton of WNET’s TV Lab where all the early port-pak documentarians got their start; Steve Freidman of NBC, who astonishingly broadcast our work over a 13-year period on a commercial network; and most of all, Sheila Nevins of HBO, who continues to stand beside us and many other documentary filmmakers.

MO: And we're inspired by the crop of documentaries (shorts and features) that are nominated this year along with Redemption—the craft, the ambitions and the overall quality are representative of a continuing growth in the caliber and breadth of documentary film.


D: Would you care to comment on your Oscar nomination?

JA & MO: We are honored to be included in this great group of short documentaries. We admire the work of our fellow nominees and hope that many many people get to see all of these films.