Opting for nothing less than an examination of the purpose and philosophy of 21st century labour – in short, how and why do we work in an era of automation and disposable consumerism? – Stacey Tenenbaum’s re-evaluation of the humble shoe shiner smashes any and all Dickensian or Jim Crow notions of the trade with smiles and (mostly joyful) tears.
She travels the globe, from Times Square to La Paz, Bolivia and from Sarajevo to Etobicoke to assess the evolution of the most local of services: cleaning and burnishing shoe leather in a public space. Shiners addresses socioeconomic hot buttons issues of the day, such as race, class, ecology, automation of labour, addiction, politics and human dignity. But, it is first and foremost a character study in a waning trade that has always attracted interesting characters. Combine this with Van Royko’s low-f-stop cinematography and you almost smell the oil, leather, and Kiwi.
Tactile close-ups of fingers and cloth, skin on skin, are mixed with medium shots to emphasize the ‘power-difference’ between the person ‘in the chair’ (which is not always a literal chair) and the shiner, which the film then smoothly undoes. Finally, a healthy mix of wide shots to show their labour employed inside the context of their city. Shiners has a craftswoman’s ebb and flow as Tenenbaum effortlessly flits back and forth across their stories.
In New York there is former accountant and pastry chef, Don, who has a chair (and a megaphone) among the thick foot traffic of one of the world’s most popular corners. Humourously heckling anyone and everyone to drum up business, he is a street philosopher on freedom and human kindness. He lambastes and connects in that quintessential New York way. Don’s ace-in-the-hole is his lack of a boss; the world is his office where he flirts, dances, and engages with the constant stream of humanity.
Meanwhile, in urban Bolivia, shoe shiners wear full face masks to hide their identity to avoid bullying or embarrassment in their private lives of attending college or raising a family. They work for pennies in church plazas and side streets, their gear neatly folds up in the most efficient of boxes which double functions as the rest for the patron’s foot.
Sylvia, a mother of three young children, feeds her family by shining. Her husband may or may not appear on screen, several men are suggested by the editing, but in the end this was unclear. In Sylvia’s meager subsistence, every day is take your kids to work day by necessity. Unlike the men in her profession, she opts not to wear the mask and emotionally embraces small acts of kindness when they happen. Unlike the rest of the people in the doc, she is not doing the job by choice, but she still does her work with skill and pride. The high-altitude walk above La Paz with her gear and her kids (the youngest in a jury-rigged backpack, is epic and beautiful at the same time as you see the poverty. She hopes her kids become lawyers or accountants just the same.
Ramiz in Bosnia is very much in love with his dead father, a man who shined shoes during the ugly conflict in the 1990s, even as the shells were dropping down on nearby buildings. His dad was nationally recognized as a hero for maintaining morale and normality in a crazy time. He now carries on the tradition of shining shoes and the hope of being embraced by the city as ‘the last shoe shiner in Sarajevo. It seems trivial, but my favourite detail of this story is the light-switch in Ramiz’s apartment which has to be clicked off using dexterity and a dinner fork. In shoe shining, the details matter.
An old-timey (ok, ok, it is totally hipster) barbershop in Toronto employs a university student, Vincent, to polish shoes, a practice that has helped him recover from a pretty serious motorcycle accident. Simple human interactions calm his anxiety and PTSD, he is also knitting the barbers hats with Pulp Fiction quotes. The Nite Owl barbershop is like stepping into another world in a nonchalant, of the way, part of town.
The upscale analog of this is in Tokyo, where you are served sparkling wine while your shoes are polished (and re-laced) by men in suits. Rather than open air, it is a hidden private experience where you wait out (and witness) the service in a serene and posh lounge, an oasis from one of the world’s fastest paced and most populated cities. The owner has a wonderful sense of style, and he has thought about shining shoes far more than you have. He has a twinkle in his eye and a spring in his step. His customers are so amazed by the work, they are hesitant to wear their shoes for the walk home. Meanwhile back in the United States, there is an ex-boxer who gets all the people in his Alcoholics Anonymous circles to learn the art of shining as therapy for their demons. Educated and career driven Americans, men and ladies alike, in this recovery programme take to the working-therapy instantly and effectively. More smiles, more tears. The joy (leavened with the serious situations) in this movie can get quite infectious, and it becomes fun to watch people step down out of the chair and continue the conversation in the absence of awkwardness.
Shiners is nothing shy of a complete re-evaluation of what labour means in the modern world, and our relationship between work and identity goes far, far further than simply money. Tenenbaum’s film is high on charm and showmanship, it engages with issues without bludgeoning you to death with outrage or didacticism, and weaves its stories to change hearts and minds on things both something specific, and universal. If the film does not exactly re-invent the narrative wheel, well so what? It does what great documentaries, hell, great cinema, is supposed to do: Open your mind, fill your heart.