Shiners, A Documentary, Confers Respect On The Dignity of Manual Labor

Filed in Film by on February 15, 2018 0 Comments

Stacey Tenenbaum’s unusual documentary, Shiners, examines an archaic trade that seems destined for oblivion. Her subjects are shoe shiners who polish and buff shoes and boots for a living. As she suggests, they’re a dwindling breed.

Stacey Tenenbaum

Her film, a paean to working-class men and women, will be screened at the Royal Cinema in Toronto on February 17, 18 and 20 at respectively 7:30 p.m., 4:40 p.m. and 7 p.m.

Tenenbaum profiles an eclectic assortment of shiners in New York City, La Paz, Toronto, Tokyo and Sarajevo.

Don in Manhattan

Don, an African American, sets up shop on the same corner of Manhattan every day. Talkative and affable, he welcomes customers with a practiced spiel. “You’re in the shine zone,” he proclaims theatrically. He’s been doing this for the past 16 years and loves it. “This is freedom, ” Don, a former pastry chef, exclaims. “It pays the bills and I’m free.”

In La Paz, Tenenbaum zeroes in on two shiners. Balloo plies his trade in front of an ornate cathedral in a large square. Out of shame, he wears a ski mask to conceal his face. Sylvia, a mother of four, is the first, and perhaps the last, female shiner in the city. Tenenbaum says very little about Balloo. She’s  more forthcoming about Sylvia, a hard worker who has no illusions about her occupation. Bereft of status and prestige, it appeals only to the poor and the desperate. Which is why, she says, she will encourage her children to avoid it and become professionals.

Sylvia in La Paz

Vincent works in a Toronto barber shop and charges $5 per shine. He also studies English at Ryerson University. He was involved in a road accident and is still recovering from his injuries. He’s a pleasant and likeable young man who enjoys what he does.

Kevin and his two sisters are shiners in New York City. “It’s much more than a job,” he says, implying that the social contact is a real plus. It’s not clear why the threesome are in shoe shining.

Nick, another shiner, was previously a lawyer. He thought this lowly trade would be beneath him, but it makes him feel good. One wonders why he prefers it to the legal profession.

Yuya in Tokyo

Yuya, a Japanese man from Tokyo, is proud of being a shiner. Indeed, he wears a tie and a suit when he’s on duty in his small shop. He charges $25 to shine a pair of shoes. The perfect shine, he claims, needs one hour of work. He believes it takes 10,000 shines to reach what he describes as a “professional level.” A conservationist, he maintains that it’s more ecological to shine old shoes than to throw them out.

Ramiz in Sarajevo

Ramiz inherited his job from his father, and is now the last shiner in Sarajevo. He continued working even when Sarajevo was in a war zone in the early 1990s. He likes people and thinks he’s performing an important service.

At a moment in time when most of us would rather buy a new pair of shoes than repair the old ones, Shiners confers respect on workers like Yuya, Sylvia and Vincent, who put in an honest day’s work and uphold the dignity of manual labor.




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