January 20, 2011

Doc Films featured Scrappers on Friday, Jan. 21, at 7 p.m.

Scrappers, an award-winning documentary which took Brian Ashby, AB’06, Ben Kolak, AB’06, and Courtney Prokopas, AB’06, three years to film, gives us an unflinching view of the unseen experiences of Chicago metal scrappers and the Chicago metal scrapping industry.

The film follows two scrappers, Oscar, an undocumented immigrant from Honduras, and Otis, a 70-year-old African American Chicago native. Their day-to-day hunt for discarded metal brings them to residential basements, where homeowners complain about Chicago’s terrible recycling system, and industrial impoundment lots, where over the course of the film we see the impact of the 2008 commodities market collapse.

“Oscar and Otis traverse the city on the alternate grid of alleyways,” says Prokopas. “Initially we envisioned scrappers as being ‘lone urban cowboys’ but once we started following scrappers we quickly realized how false that notion was.”

The opposite of ‘lone cowboys’

In fact, scrappers are portrayed as quite the opposite of lone cowboys. Their work is built upon a large network that amounts to one of Chicago’s most pervasive urban ecosystems.

“Seeing Oscar and Otis work showed one man's burden is another man’s boon,” Propokopas says. “But it isn’t until someone bridges the gap by asking, ‘You throwing away any metal?’ that a mutually beneficial relationship blossoms.”

Scrappers offers insight into many different relationships: scrappers and residents, residents and their garbage, scrap merchants and the economic market, and scrappers and the families they support. Some of these relationships are symbiotic, even loving, and others divisive. However, each is an equally integral node in the industry.

Scrap business infrastructure

For Ashby, this is one of the central themes in the film. “I learned a lot about the scope of the heavy industrial economy in Chicago, and how much it means in many different communities,” Ashby says. While Ashby’s degree in Political Science informed a larger curiosity about scrapping as a political economy, his interest in the Chicago scrapping community grew from simple daily observations of neighborhoods like Pilsen and Little Village, where there are large populations of scrappers and a large amount of the scrap business infrastructure.

And Ashby, Kolak, and Propokopas use documentary film to bring together these macro and micro views of the scrapping world. In pointing their camera lens on Chicago metal scrapping, Ashby, Kolak and Prokopas have created an informative, moving film that not only diagnoses the daily lives of two Chicago scrappers, but illustrates how documenting the extraordinary moments of ordinary lives is the best way to understand ourselves, our culture, and our city.

By Elly Fishman, AB’10