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.