Saturday Oct. 22 3:15pm
Stacey Tenenbaum has been touring Canada during Waste Reduction Week, and attending special screenings of her documentary, Scrap, to answer those questions about what it means to not only recycle, but also explain humanity’s relationship with the objects made long ago. It’s not about reusing what’s found in a scrapyard for a movie, like Mad Max: Fury Road, or finding new uses of smaller industrial objects, like steampunk cosplay. I’m sure people scour the junkyards for those antiques needed when a film or tv show requires something from a bygone age when it can’t be found in an antique store.
But there’s more to this movie than meets the eye in terms of how old junk is reused. They have longetivity to them, and that’s one key thing to remember. Also, some of these items do more than bring out feelings of nostalgia. Also, there’s an intrinsic beauty not everyone can recognise. Whether it’s to be used in installation art or for residing in, I adored every careful possibility that’s been put into this work.
I feel what this filmmaker offers is very meditative, and I had an opportunity to correspond with her about this work:
How did you get your start as a filmmaker/documentarian?
I actually started making films pretty late in life. I have two degrees in Political Science but I ended up getting an internship working on a TV series after grad school. It turned into a full time job and I did that for about 16 years, but the pace was really gruelling and I wanted to work on my own ideas instead of doing contracts for other people. I started my production company in 2014 and haven’t looked back.
My first film, Shiners, was about shoe shiners around the world. You can check it out on CBC gem. My second film was about competitive organists–it’s called Pipe Dreams and is also available on CBC gem. Scrap is my third documentary.
How difficult is it to narrow down the choices in what should be the focus during the making of?
The research process was actually really lengthy. I started out looking specifically for different metal graveyards around the world but then I shifted focus and began looking for people who had a specific relationship to discarded objects. Narrowing things down became relatively easy after that because it was hard to find a great location that also had an interesting person and story attached to it.
I also got a few rejections from different locations and people along the way so that narrowed things down even farther.
I notice there’s also a documentary on YouTube also called Scrap. Anyone watching it will know both products are different, but to distinguish your work, what would you say is the theme of your documentary?
There are actually a few other Scrap films out there but I think my documentary stands out since it has really beautiful cinematography. It was important to me that that people could see the beauty in these discarded items.
My goal is to get people thinking about the things we discard and to show that people can become attached to objects they use in their life. Scrap is really about the life-cycle of things and how some people are working to extend this life span through creative solutions–like using a ship to make a church or using an old airplane as a home.
Was it difficult to find people to interview and film?
It was actually fairly difficult to find people. There are a lot of people working with scrap metal or collecting old objects but it was a question of finding the right ones and the right mix of people as well. Each of the stories in the film is different and each of the people bring up new ideas relating to the larger theme of Scrap.
From a cinematographer’s perspective, was it difficult to get those shots in when lighting wasn’t perfect just to spotlight the patina or show just how rusted those old vehicles are?
I hired cinematographers to shoot the film so I don’t have a detailed answer; but I can say that the whole film was shot with natural light. Sunlight is often prettier than anything you can conjure up in a studio. I tried to plan shoots around the ‘magic hour’ so that the objects would be looking their best. I was pretty lucky with the weather on almost all my shoots.
While your work addresses streetcars, I’m curious about the vestiages from the Old West or even those steam-driven trains in Europe. Surely they must go somewhere.
Some of the old steam-driven trains were saved and are in museums but I imagine most were melted down and the metal was sold. That’s true of a lot of ‘old technology.’
The impulse has always been to ‘scrap’ rather than to preserve. That impulse has only gotten more acute and is also accelerating with the pace of technological innovation. Think of the current life span of phones or cameras or even washing machines as compared to what it was even a few decades ago. That’s one of the ideas I am exploring in the film. I believe that this impulse to throw things away is impoverishing us as a society. We are losing a lot of our history and cultural memory when things in our lives are simply scrapped rather than being preserved.
On a somewhat related note, is there anything from the early Industrial age that can be used today?
Lots of objects from the industrial age are still usable today because for the most part they were purely mechanical and they were made out of durable materials like steel. Mechanical things are made to be repaired. Parts can be easily replaced to extend the lifespan of these objects. There are a lot of people out there–including myself–who collect old mechanical devices and repair them or use their parts to create something new.
I think the appeal of these old objects is their design and patina. There is something about an object that has lived a long time and has been touched by many hands that makes it more interesting. It sparks people’s imagination. That’s what I wanted to get across in the film.
Loved the segment about the Thai family living in a cut up part of an airplane. If given the opportunity, what’s your opinion in converting other discarded but mobile old wrecks (especially RVs) to habitats for low income families worldwide? Would that help solve some of those homelessness problems modern society has?
The airplane graveyard is in Bangkok. I loved that they had converted one of the discarded airplanes into a home. I think there is a lot that can be done to improve housing for the homeless.
Old RVs are a great idea but I’ve also seen proposals to use decommissioned cruise ships to house the homeless. That makes a lot of sense to me. I think that re-purposing and re-use should be the way of the future. It makes sense and is probably cheaper than building new.
Aside from larger objects that can be reused for habitat, what other uses are there aside from art installations?
I’ve seen airplanes turned into restaurants and hotels. The old phone booths I show in the film are being used as cafes and community libraries, the architect in Scrap is using ships to make new buildings. He has a new project coming up that will use 10 old ocean liners to make a modern art museum. Ideas for re-use are endless. It is just a matter of developing the instinct to repurpose rather than discard.
Is there a huge market for restoration of some of the items featured in your film?
John Lopez, the sculptor in my film who is making public art out of old farm equipment, has sold pieces all across the USA. So yes, I would say there is a market. The same for the architect who is making buildings out of ships. He has several similar projects underway now. I think making things out of restored items makes sense–it is cheaper to do since the building materials are free or inexpensive to access.
I can’t help but wonder if any old scrap can be melted down. I’m guessing it’s not economically feasible given that a lot of chemical processes are required to get a form of metal for reuse, correct?
The trick is that some of the metals are hard to extract, or they are not as pure as required, so there is a lot of metal sorting that goes on in those places. You saw a bit of that in the e-waste recycling factory we filmed in Delhi. There are all kinds of precious metals in our phones – including gold – but to get at it you have to break the phone apart and then separate, extract, and smelt each of the different metals. It’s a lot of work but it is actually very lucrative and it is a great alternative to open pit mining.
In closing, is there anything you would like to add?
I just want people to know that the film is not depressing. I think it’s actually enjoyable to watch. You’ll travel the world, meet interesting characters, and see innovative ways that people are approaching the problem of waste. It’s a visually stunning film that might make you look at the things around you in a different way. I hope people enjoy it.
I will be at screenings in Montreal, Toronto, Guelph and Vancouver to do Q+As after the film and I love chatting with audiences. Scrap will also be broadcast on the Documentary Channel on Nov 6th but the film is really made to be seen in a cinema. The images deserve a big screen and the sound is just so much better in a theatre.
The sound design and music are actually my favourite part of the film! The composer Ramachandra Borcar made most of the music using scrap metal as instruments–he even played on an old discarded plane! It sounds like normal music but the soundtrack was largely made using scrap metal. It just kind of fits with the images and is a fun thing we did. Hopefully people will come out to see–and hear–Scrap in cinemas!