-A Documentary by Jonathan Olshefski-
“The Scrapper” follows the nightly routine of one of Philadelphia’s scrappers. Scrapping is a way of life in many urban areas where a tremendous wealth disparity exists in close proximity. After the sun sets the Scrapper traverses the urban landscape in search of treasure. The film sheds light on a hidden yet pervasive sub culture through a man who desires to be understood and respected for doing the activity that he loves. As the secrets of his shadowy activities are revealed, so are the details of his surprising past.
I have always been interested in scrapping and the guys with the carts. My Grandfather scrapped all of kinds of things out of the garbage for me when I was a kid. That’s how I got my first big wheel. As a teenager I used to scrap every Tuesday night to get old televisions and appliances for the movies I made in high school. After moving to inner-city Philadelphia I was always curious about the people who made their livelihoods by pushing carts through the city.
“The Scrapper” came about serendipitously as I was doing an observation assignment for a screenwriting class. I was sitting in this beer store that sits under the el tracks in Kensington taking notes on everything that I was observing. Joe (the scrapper) came in and sat next to me and we talked about hockey and rollerblading for the next hour. He ever bought me a beer. At that point I did not know that he scrapped. Later I saw him with his cart and told him I had always wanted to do a project on a scrapping. Joe agreed to let me document his nightly journeys and said that he was happy to have the company.
Stylistically, I was most influenced by the Direct Cinema/Verite movement and specifically by cameramen: D. A. Pennebaker, Ricky Leacock, Albert Maysles and Ed Pincus. I believe that there is something profound about experiencing the moment as it happens as opposed to structured talking head essays that deal with the past, but don’t really reveal anything happening in real time. With verite shooting there the opportunity to really experience life along with the subject, which I believe creates an opportunity for greater understanding, and which I would hope leads to greater empathy.
Conceptually I was influenced by: Marc Singer’s Dark Days, Edet Belzberg’s Children Underground, and Zana Briski’s Born into Brothels, in the sense that I wanted to compassionately reveal the life of someone whom society negatively stereotypes. Unlike these films I chose to simply deal with Joe and his perception of things rather than finding distraction in a larger picture. Rather than Jonathan Olshefski putting out an argument, I wanted to give Joe the space to speak for himself and share himself with an audience on his own terms.
The Scrapper was shot over the period of three months from January to March 2008. Due to the fact that Joe’s lifestyle lacks routine or consistency I could not plan to far ahead when it came to securing equipment. I had to shoot with the camera that I had on hand when Joe was available to shoot. The piece was shot primarily on HDV, but also includes an SD section, which was bumped up to HD for screening. I shot with the Sony V1U, Panasonic HVX200, and the Panasonic DVX100B. For sound I had a short shotgun microphone attached to the camera and I tried to stay as close to Joe as possible when trying to capture clear audio. I considered a wireless lavaliere microphone, but with the run and gun style it seemed like it would be too cumbersome to employ and I didn’t always have one readily available when Joe was willing to shoot.
Since Joe travels on rollerblades there was the dilemma of keeping up with him while simultaneously shooting. A car would be too cumbersome and distracting, so I decided to ride a single speed bicycle with foot brakes to follow Joe. I originally constructed a rig out of a milk crate and inner tubes in order to set the camera up on the handlebars. This would allow me to use both hands when riding and it would also be a discreet way of shooting when in rougher neighborhoods, but the test footage proved to be too bouncy, so I had to resort to hand holding the camera while riding with one hand and regulating speed with my feet. I kept the milk crate and with a small blanket on top I had good place to hide the camera when not shooting in order to avoid unwanted attention.
I also brought along a 35mm still camera and covered different locations with this in order to capture the events of Joe’s life through another medium. Shooting stills also slows me down and gives me a chance to really consider composition and shot angle. This practice keeps me grounded and helps me to remember what it takes to be a disciplined shooter when I am shooting moving images. It keeps me from being tempted to move the camera more often than is necessary and it keeps me from being lazy and satisfied with mediocre shots. I intend to use the stills to create book that will be released alongside the distribution DVD.
The first 28 minutes of the film take place at night. Therefore natural, low light shooting was a main concern. As I had no control over location or time I had to make do with the lighting situations that presented themselves along Joe’s nightly route. The moments where the light and the content of the moment came together were the ones I used for the finished pieces. There were moments where interesting things happened, but the light levels were so dark that the shots were unusable. Streetlights were the savior of the piece and determined many of my angles. There were many moments where it was impossible to get a good exposure except to shot at a low angle and use the street light as a backlight so silhouettes became a bit of a motif.
low key stills from “The Scrapper”
As still images these compositions may seem flat, but in the context of the piece where Joe is constantly moving through areas of light and dark this play between light and shadow creates a sense of tension. This is a stylistic mirroring of the structure of the piece. Mysteries are constantly laid out and revealed. This occurs visually when it is revealed that Joe is on skates and when a streetlight illuminates a hidden portion of Joe’s face. This also occurs through the narration as Joe slowly shares his thoughts and his story piece by piece.
I wanted to create the simple experience of hanging out with Joe for the viewer. I know that the core audience for this piece are not people who would normally interact with someone like Joe, so I wanted to give them a taste of what it would be like to spend time with him one on one. This is the reason why I cut my dialogue completely out. I felt like my voice was a distraction from the relationship of Joe and the viewer. I mediated this relationship through shot choice and camera angle, but I didn’t think it was necessary for me to become a character in the piece. Though the creation of the piece was only possible through the interaction I had with Joe as we were shooting. The shooting process was the story of Joe and Jonathan. “The Scrapper” is the story of Joe and the viewer.
I originally edited the piece to an eight-minute short, but this lacked the depth of the longer cut where you really get to spend time with Joe. In the shorter cut Joe seems to be presented as a quirky guy with rollerblades. I believe that Joe is much more compelling than that. I think that the longer cut gives the viewer time to get to know Joe in a much more intimate fashion.
Joe and Jonathan Olshefski at the 941 Theater for Philly Premiere
After shooting and editing the project I shared my cut with Joe and he approved it. He feels like it was a good depiction of himself and he prides himself on his narration. It went on to premiere at the Chicago Underground Film Festival in Octocer 2008. I still see Joe from time to time and we will have the occasional beer. Last Winter Joe broke his skates and a woman who learned of this from the project’s website (http://thescrapper.org) and bought him a brand new pair of skates. On May 17, 2009 “The Scrapper” had its local premiere and everyone treated Joe like a celebrity. It was a wonderful time. This event served as an opportunity for viewers to become actual people and engage with the subject and actually interact with him, not as a stereotype, not as a distant subject projected on a screen, but as an actual person. This is what it is all about.