Wakefield Doc Fest: Film puts some polish on the men and women who shine shoes

A scene from Shiners.

The Wakefield Doc Fest showcases films from across Canada and around the world. This weekend, one of the films on view will be the award winning documentary Shiners, about the men and women who earn their keep shining shoes. The film is by the Montreal-based director Stacey Tenenbaum who talks about her film and the respect she has gained for those who take up the brush in an interview with ARTSFILE.

Q. This is your first documentary feature. Tell me about your road to this point.

A. ​This is my first documentary feature but I have been working in non-fiction television for 18 years. I started out working on kids shows like Popular Mechanics for Kids and Mystery Hunters. I also worked on other documentary TV shows including a 10 hour documentary series called The Beat about police in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. That series was pure verité filming — which is very much like what we do on documentary films. By the time I started working on Shiners I knew a lot about the industry and how ​things work. ​I have a MA in political studies. My thesis was on the international trade of audiovisual services — so basically the business and trade part of film.

Q. Why this topic for your first feature?

A. ​I have always loved getting my shoes shined. There is something very satisfying about taking something old and dirty and making it shiny and new again. I loved that feeling and I imagined that the shiners felt the same. I just  thought it must be a very satisfying job because customers always walk away happy. Think about it — there are very few other professions where you get positive reinforcement every 15 minutes all day long. The interesting thing for me, which made me want to do this film, was all of the prejudice against this job. There seemed to be a disconnect between what people thought about the work and how the people doing it actually felt about it. I wanted to explore that and also wanted to give shoe shiners a voice — since they are kind of an ignored part of our society. … I don’t think people realize that shoe shining is such a giving profession. Maybe they will after the see the film.

Stacey Tenenbaum

Q. Shoes are a very important part of a person’s wardrobe. Many of us have dozens of pairs. Do you have a lot of shoes?

A. ​This is actually very funny because I am not the typical woman with tons of shoes. I like practical and comfortable shoes and I usually wear one or two pairs into the ground. What the film did do for me is make me want to buy better quality shoes which can be cared for and which will last.

Our culture is always about the latest and newest styles but usually those types of shoes are not well made and will quickly end up in a landfill somewhere. Another one of the ideas I wanted ​to get across in the film was to buy quality and make your shoes last. Shoes which are worn for years are more comfortable and they have a history.

Q. What kind of person gets shoes shined?

A. It depends on the country. In Bolivia almost everybody got their shoes shined. It is part of their culture to have shiny shoes and there are so many shiners on the streets that it is normal to stop and get a shine. In North America it seems that mostly men get their shoes shined​​ which I think is a huge shame. Women are missing out. Having your shoes shined is an affordable luxury.  It feels good to get your shoes shined and you look better with shined shoes. You actually even feel better about yourself right after a shoe shine. I have noticed the way people walk away from a shine standing taller and with a little pep ​in their step.

Q. What kind of person shines shoes?

​A. All kinds of people shine shoes and for all kinds of different reasons. ​Just look at some of the shiners in my film — Kealani was a paramedic and a taxi driver before she started shining. Jes has a university degree and was studying to be a furniture maker. Don is a retired accountant and pastry chef. I’ve met journalists who took up shoe shining, students, actresses —  I could go on and on. I hate the assumption people make that shoe shiners are uneducated and can’t do anything else. 

Q. It seems to me it’s the ultimate small business. What do you think?

A. They say shoe shining is the second oldest profession. I am not sure if that is true or not. I do know that the first photograph of a human ever taken was of a shoe shiner. It was taken by Louis Daguerre in Paris in 1838 — you can look it up.

Shoe shining is the ultimate small business. Most people don’t think of shoe shiners as entrepreneurs but they are. Every single person I interviewed in every country said that they loved the job because they can be their own boss. What’s even better is that you can become your own boss with very little overhead and minimal training. I am surprised more people aren’t shoe shiners.

Q. The film also speaks to economic hardship and the 99 per cent vs. the one per cent. Is that something that interests you and something you wanted to examine?

A. ​I am very interested in social justice and it was definitely something I wanted to explore in the film. I think the class difference, and the height difference, between the shiner and the customer, is what makes so many people uncomfortable. I have arguments with my very liberal friends about this. Many say they would never go to a shiner because they don’t want to have somebody working at their feet. I always counter: ‘So you would rather deprive somebody of their livelihood to make yourself feel better?’ Shoe shiners are providing a service just like a manicure or a haircut yet there is still this taboo of having somebody at your feet.

The interesting thing I found in the film is that shoe shining actually brings the classes together rather than intensifying class differences. It is a chance for people of two very different economic backgrounds to connect and find common ground. It is up to the client whether the experience will be degrading. If you talk with your shiner, appreciate their skill, thank them for the service and tip them, it can be a moment of real human connection.  Lots of shoe shiners are friends and even confidants, for their regular clients — despite the class differences that might exist between them.

Q. How long did it take to make the film? Where was it shot?

A. ​It took me about a  year and a half to finance and make the film — which is incredibly fast. ​ The filming was done over about four months … the editing took considerably longer. I shot in: Toronto, New York City, La Paz, Bolivia, Tokyo, Sarajevo, Hong Kong, Paris and London. Unfortunately I couldn’t fit all of those countries and shoe shiners in the film.

Q. Was it hard to convince them to appear in the film?

A. ​Not at all. All of the shiners were happy to participate. They really were touched that somebody wanted to show what they did. They could also tell that I had a tremendous amount of respect for the work they do — which certainly helped. ​

Q. Anything else you’d like to say about project?

A. ​I think that the biggest message I wanted to get across in the film is that we should be kinder to all of the people who serve us each day.  ​Everybody has a story, everybody is working hard to make a living, and everybody deserves just a little more kindness and respect. I also want to let people know that Shiners will be airing on television this Feb  25th on the documentary channel.  If they like the film they should tell their friends and family across the country to tune in.

Q. What’s next?

​A. I’m actually editing my second film right now. It’s called Pipe Dreams and is about young organists who competed in the Canadian International Organ Competition in Montreal this Fall. I followed six competitors in the film. The organists came from China, New Zealand, Germany, England and the U.S. so there was a lot of travel for this documentary as well. It’s going to be gorgeous and the music is going to blow people away. I can’t wait for everybody to discover this incredible instrument.

Shiners by Stacey Tenenbaum
Wakefield Doc Fest
Screening times: Feb. 10 at 7:30 p.m. (The director will attend the screening); Feb. 11 at 1 p.m.
Where: Gwen Shea Hall at Centre Wakefield La Pêche located at 38 chemin de la Vallée-de-Wakefield.
Tickets and information: wakefielddocfest.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.