AMIR SOLTANI  |  Co-Director, Producer

Early on, Chihiro and I learned that the idea that you are making a film is an illusion. The film is making you. It is making you when you run into your characters. It is making you when you choose your collaborators. It is making you when you are in the edit room. 

But sometimes, it is not making you. It is breaking you. 

You have no more to give. You have run out of everything: love, time, energy, money. For me that was the hardest experience. I started the film with great optimism, innocence even. All my love and light, plus my apartment, which I had sold to finance the film, was being drained in a black hole. I felt just like the cans being crushed in the bailer—the grip of trauma and gravity of loss ruled out the possibility of redemption. Of any kind. For anyone.  

I grew up thinking, perhaps wrongly, that what holds the world together is love. Love is what had held my family together after the Iranian revolution. Love is what brought us to America—by that I mean a sense of abundance, a sense of connection, a sense of possibility. And belonging. 

It was hard to experience the opposite—disconnection. And despair. Poverty not as the absence of money, but poverty as isolation, addiction and abandonment, as the breakdown of love, of family and of community. In this sense, it was hard for us, as immigrants, to experience America as absence, as trauma, and as addiction. Especially in a place as welcoming, vibrant and diverse as Oakland. The poverty was not that of the recyclers, or even the city, or the system. It was all of ours.

When reality cuts against the grain of one’s character that is when you start paying the price of your beliefs. And so, I think the hardest thing for me was coming face to face with those limits, and learning to inhabit and experience space, and I suppose, America, from a perspective that was fragmented rather than established.



The process of making a documentary film is an epic and arduous journey and DOGTOWN REDEMPTION was no exception. I spent over five years filming recyclers in the streets of West Oakland at all hours: early morning to late at night. Each recycler had their own rhythm: Landon would scrap what he could in the neighborhood; Hayok would roam the Emeryville malls trash bins as they filled and refilled all day; Roslyn would awaken in the pre-dawn chill; Jason would toil all night and through the next day, rolling his loaded shopping cart, listing like a Spanish galleon laden with gold, miles and miles from home. They worked hard, they worked relentlessly, through blazing heat and freezing rain to get the bottles and cans from the recycling bins and heaping trash cans, and bring them to the recycling center, for a few dollars, that maybe would give them enough to get by till the next day. When this routine started all over again.

Filming began in 2008: Bush was in his final days, Obama was the new voice of hope, and the economic system was teetering on the brink of collapse. As the film finally emerges eight years later, the world is still in a state of imbalance, the bankers are still in business, the gap between rich and poor ever widening. When I first visited the recycling center what I remember is the sensual assault: the explosions of glass and cans being sorted in recycling bins, the stink of the trash, the filth everywhere inside—on the sticky floors, on the grimy bins, even on the people. My first reaction was to leave this uncomfortable place that seemed to be its own special dark and reeking purgatory full of lost souls, endlessly sorting and weighing the throwaways of other people’s lives on the scales.

But the process of making a documentary film is a heart-opening process. You must share of yourself before you can access other people’s lives.  And when that trust is gained, you try and be a compassionate witness to their lives as they unfold, through the highs and lows, capturing their unique but universally connected human experience. Through the camera’s eye I observed grief and laughter, violence and love, addiction and redemption. I saw these recyclers at their best and worst, with all that makes us human, and ultimately the film will have succeeded if you, the viewer, sees this humanity too and it helps erase the invisible barrier we, as individuals and as a society, erect between us and “them.”

There’s relief and sadness and joy that the film process is complete. I’m glad the recyclers now have the chance to be seen for the complex and beautiful human beings they are at last. And I still dream about those quiet late nights in the streets of Oakland, alone with the camera, filming a recycler digging in a garbage bin for a castaway treasure to redeem.