Dogtown Redemption Airs on PBS

Amir Soltani’s documentary about West Oakland homeless recyclers tells a love story of sorts.



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Soltani says he started out making a film about poverty but that it turned into one about love.

Photo from Dogtown Redemption courtesy of Amir Soltani

Amir Soltani has been around the block. Born in London and raised in Iran, he was 12 when the revolution forced his family to return to England. Three years later, the Soltanis immigrated to Boston.

“We knew what it was like to be refugees and not have papers,” he recalls. “America gave us a chance to start again.”

Exile, homelessness, fresh opportunity, redemption—these are the states of being that defined Soltani’s adolescence and informed his adulthood as a business exec, human rights activist, and philanthropist. Upon arriving in the Bay Area, consequently, his senses were heightened to everyday sights most of us take for granted.

“When I moved to West Oakland, I was taken aback that people were going through our trash,” Soltani says with palpable wonder. “It wasn’t just one person. It was over and over again, people going through the same trash looking for bottles and cans. No one rang the bell; the window and door was between us. The loneliness of the experience, and the silence around them, and the lack of community—these things shocked me.”

Soltani did a little research, and discovered that the hub for all these individual recyclers was Alliance Metals.

“It was their ATM,” Soltani explains. “It was the only place where they could engage in a legitimate transaction. But they’re associated with dirt, smell, all the things we associate with trash.”

When Soltani embarked in 2007-2008 on what was to become the feature-length documentary Dogtown Redemption, he’d never made a movie. He found a remarkable ally in local cinematographer and editor Chihiro Wimbush, and the duo took on the difficult, exhausting work of insinuating themselves into the underground homeless economy.

“There’s poverty in the Third World, but it doesn’t have the same stigma, alienation, and failure,” Soltani declares. “I went to the recycling center, and it was like a Fellini set. People who, by any middle-class definition, should have been dead, but they were surviving. It was a pilgrimage place, a shrine, that allowed them to survive. They defied Darwin; it was the survival of the least fit. But there was something hopeful about that.”

Dogtown Redemption follows the disparate paths of three homeless people who make their living from recycling: the African-American ex-minister Landon Goodwin; a Korean woman, Miss Hayok Kay, who was the drummer for local new wave party band Polkacide in a previous life; and Jason Witt, a disciplined hard worker with a drug problem.

“We lived with them,” Soltani says. “It wasn’t going in and out and grabbing something. It was walking the walk with them. Over time, you end up filming your relationships, I think. The closer you are, the more intimate you can be.”

The best documentaries are typically an act of discovery. The filmmaker begins with a particular story, or intent, but life ends up wresting away control of the film.

“I started out making a film about poverty and ended up making a film about love,” Soltani says. “At the root is trauma, both at the level of the city and at the level of the individual. There was just a lot of pain. West Oakland has history, grandeur, and majesty to it, notably the 16th Street train station. A shroud of time covers it and doesn’t allow us to see its beauty. There’s a legacy of trauma that’s playing itself out.”

Dogtown Redemption works as a sociology project as well as a character study, providing a broader perspective on the economic and humanitarian challenges confronting Oakland and every U.S. city. The documentary includes the voices of Alliance’s neighbors and elected officials, whose viewpoints are readily understandable (though perhaps lacking in understanding).

“When push came to shove, it wasn’t about class and racism but about not seeing the complete picture and being scared,” Soltani asserts. “There was no space where we could have a proper conversation in which you honored every perspective.”

Needless to say, Soltani and Wimbush hope their film provokes a reasoned, productive dialogue about social and economic forces and realities. Dogtown Redemption premiered last October at the Mill Valley Film Festival and screened in April at the New Parkway and other Bay Area venues. It reaches its biggest audience, however, with a national broadcast on PBS’ Independent Lens on May 16.

Taking a well-earned break from filmmaking, Soltani is contemplating a graphic novel—a form he used to powerful effect in Zahra’s Paradise, the saga of a mother looking for her disappeared son in the aftermath of the 2009 Iran elections—that would tell the stories of recyclers who didn’t find their way into Dogtown Redemption.

Reached in Utah, where he’s been working on a project for the last several months, he confided, “I’m always displaced. That is my condition. I like it this way. There’s something liberating about not being defined, not being tied to a place. It’s kind of like being a nomad, a butterfly. You want to move and change and explore and experiment. In a sense I will always be homeless, because Iran was my home.”

Dogtown Redemption airs May 16 at 10 p.m. on KQED, Channel 9. For additional airdates and more information, visit www.PBS.org/Independentlens/Films/Dogtown-redemption.

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