Movie Review: ‘Scrappers’ intimately documents Chicagoans turning trash into treasure
“Scrappers,” a new documentary chronicling two Chicago guys trying to scrape by by collecting metal to be recycled, isn’t trash, nor is it treasure. Albeit far too long, directors Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak and Courtney Prokopas unearth fascinating insights and sometimes painful realities hidden amidst the rubble, particularly near the film’s end, when the scrappers’ already fragile way of life is crushed as the great recession lowers the price of a ton of recycled metal from $250 to a measly $60. “Scrappers” is one of the star features at this year’s Chicago Underground Film Festival, taking place at the Gene Siskel Film Center until July 1st.Scrapping is the livelihood of Otis and Oscar, the two primary subjects, but it’s not their lives, not entirely. And the directors humanize these men by showing them with family and friends, by exploring the reasons that they do what they do. We see that Otis lives in a cramped apartment in a senior community building in Chicago with his wife Loretta and her son Adrian. The conditions are horrifying – at one point, the family has to leave due to a bed bug infestation, and Otis slips on a pool of rainwater inside the building, nearly dying in the process. Oscar, meanwhile, is an immigrant from Honduras who can’t land a job. Like Otis, he spends his days driving through alleyways all over Chicago collecting metal to bring to recycling facilities for cash. With the little they get, they support their families (in Otis’ case, two families, one in Chicago and another in Honduras).
This is before the economic collapse of 2008, when the market plummets, as does cash that can come from scrapping. We see Oscar braving snow-ridden roads filling his truck with trashed metal. After a week’s work, all he gets is $32. The situation is dire enough that Otis regrets living in America, where his expenses are much larger than his earnings. Otis, meanwhile, unable to make any cash from scrapping, resorts to trying to sell his personal belongings.
Filmed in an intimate, verite style, the directors are to be commended for gaining so much trust from their subjects and exploring not just scrapping, but also the socioeconomic hardships that these men endure. But “Scrappers” would have been a much better short film. There are long stretches involving Otis’ neighbor, homeless men who have befriended Oscar and other subjects and scenarios that do little to enhance the story. If editor Aaron Wickenden had tossed the right 30 minutes in the trash, “Scrappers” could have been an excellent short documentary. In its current form, it’s still an eye-opening one.
“Scrappers” has its world premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., at 4:45 p.m. on June 27th. Directors Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak and Courtney Prokopas will be in attendance to answer questions. The film is being shown as part of the Chicago Underground Film Festival, ending July 1st. An encore presentation takes place at 8 p.m. July 1st. Tickets for both showings cost $10 and are available here.