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Hot Docs 2017 Interview: Stacey Tenenbaum Talks “Shiners”


When you are in customer service, any job you do is fine as long as you deliver customer satisfaction. Which is in case of Stacey Tenenbaum’s film SHINERS, where she explores the same profession from a different angle. It gives an insight look of why people from different countries do the job many would not even agree to get close to.

During the Hot Docs International Film Festival in Toronto, I had the great pleasure to sit down with Stacey Tenenbaum to discuss the most caring profession existing – shoe shining.

MOVIEMOVESME: What inspired you to make a film about shoe shiners?

Stacey Tenenbaum: Because I like getting my shoes shined. I actually really do get my shoes shined. When I was living in Mumbai for work-placement, I used to go the same shoe shiner every day. It was something I would look forward to so much. I started thinking how wonderful this job is. And when I started talking to other people, they would say it is something people do because they have to or it is degrading. And it is not a real job. But I found it to be really interesting, because for me it seems like there is a lot of job satisfaction in shoe shining. So I wanted to explore and see if in fact people actually love doing it. And if it is a good job, then why there is such a discrimination against them, which is what happened in the past.

MOVIEMOVES: You had an interesting way to explore the shoe shining job, where the viewer will meet people who do this job because they love it, while some others because there is no other option they are left with. 

Stacey Tenenbaum: When I first started, when the idea came to me I found it very repetitive at shoe shining so I knew from the beginning that that I need to find special characters that were very different. I decided to go to different countries and be able to see how shoe shiners are regarded in those countries. And to show each shoe shiners have a different story. So some I found out that they’re doing this job for salvation. So I had characters in my film that were alcoholic and that was the way for them sort of being out of their addiction or like you said, they do it because they have to. So I wanted to show the spectrum. Also also you know how this can be low class profession and right after how it could be very high-class kind of, enterprise and to show the craft in it and the similarity all of them had a real pride in that job. Even though they may not be making a lot of money but they get a lot of respect.

MOVIEMOVESME: It is good that you have mentioned about shoe shining for many is just a low class job. in your movie, that was not always the case?

Stacey Tenenbaum: I think the whole idea about this film was to put myself into shoe shiners, to see the world from their perspective. And the thing I found was that every single one of them no matter where they were from took pride about their job. They all loved their job. And I also think what was most surprising about this film that people cannot expect that the shoe shiners love their job. So I wanted people to get questioned about this job satisfaction and how important it is.

If you ask a lawyer if he loves his job, or a doctor you might not get universally the same response. There are actually people who love doing it, it is just society does not think it is a good job. So I kind of wonder about that, why we value certain job in society.

MOVIEMOVESME: Do you expect your film will change people’s opinion about the shoe shining job?

Stacey Tenenbaum: That’s exactly what I want to do to recognize the shoe shiners because it is something that you pass by you don’t even notice them. A lot of people who get their shoes shined never talk to shoe shiners. When I talk to people that would say will never get our shoes shined because it makes us feel uncomfortable to pass by and see the shoe shiners. I tell people it is on the meaning when you you get when you get your shoes shined and it is clients responsibility to respect someone who provided service to them and not only that this for everything in service industry and not in shoe shining.

MOVIEMOVESME: Based on what criteria you picked your documentary subjects, as you had to travel so many countries to find them.

Stacey Tenenbaum: I knew that each subject had to tell very very different stories and so that was so important to me. In Japan I was looking for someone was like Yuya someone who would be so obsessive about shoe shining. And I found that in Yuya. I think I wanted each character to stand out, be different and bring something different. So I decided to structure as a day in the life of the shoe shiners. It started with the morning with their ritual set up of their business and it follows them throughout the day. And that’s kind of the arc the film that I use to create a story of the life of a shoe shiners.

MOVIEMOVESME: Geographically it was not that easy at all? 

Stacey Tenenbaum: I actually have filmed in eight countries and not all shoeshiners made it to the film. I filmed in Paris, I filmed in London. And I also filmed in Hong Kong as well was very specific story that was very beautiful. So it was just narrowing down. Yes I did a lot of traveling I was in Japan, in La Paz, Toronto, Sarajevo.

MOVIEMOVESME: You are passionate about social justice. So I wonder if there something you would like to talk about social injustice that bothers you and you would like to make a film about?

Stacey Tenenbaum: My next film is completely different. Unfortunately I am making a music movie. Social injustice for me is inequality. The inequality between classes sort of lack of respect and understanding of both sides. With The Shiners I really wanted to open people’s eyes to people that serve you that you don’t even think about. Hopefully, that will elevate them, but at least will elevate them in in terms of respect they they get in society. And that was really important to me.

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