Thursday, October 15, 2015

SEEING THE UNSEEN

Hayok Kay is one of three people featured in a powerful and surprisingly inspirational new documentary about an unusual subject: the people who earn their living by recycling trash and selling it at Alliance Metals in West Oakland.

“Dogtown Redemption” had its world premiere last week at the Mill Valley Film Festival. For Iranian-born producer and co-director Amir Soltani, the film’s debut is bittersweet. While he admits to feeling exuberance and relief after working on the project for eight years, his elation is tempered by two recent events.

The first is the recent tragic death of Hayok Kay. The daughter of a prominent Korean-American family, “Miss Kay” was a feisty drummer in the 1980s post-punk band Polkacide. In the film, she struggles with mental health issues, but her humanity, heart, and tenacity come through.
Then, on Aug. 18, she was beaten to death by an unknown assailant as she slept on a sidewalk in Emeryville. She was 61.



The second event also occurred recently. After years of fighting a lawsuit by the Oakland City Attorney’s office for alleged “nuisance activity,” Alliance Metals has announced that it will be closing next August.

Amir wonders about the future of the estimated 500 to 1,000 people who rely on Alliance for their financial survival. These people are plagued by addiction, mental health issues, homelessness and poverty. But “Dogtown Redemption” makes you care about them. It celebrates the strength and smarts of the people we regularly see pushing and pulling carts through our city.

“The recycling center is also a community center, not a cabal of evil,” says Amir, calling Alliance “an ATM for poor people.”

That’s one perspective. Another is reflected in a recent press release from Oakland’s city attorney: “Neighbors say Alliance accepts stolen metal, encouraging theft of fences, construction materials and other items in the area, and that the thieves use the money they get from Alliance to buy drugs in the park across the street. Blight and trash have been constant problems.”

Amir, who moved to Oakland in 2005, says he knows what trauma and displacement are about. “The truth is, we have a refugee crisis in America—we call it homelessness.” He has worked in Afghanistan and in other developing nations where poverty is the norm. “In America, poverty is brutal, and those in poverty are criminalized and stigmatized.”

The other recyclers featured in the film are Landon Goodwin, a former minister and addict; and Jason Witt, who battles drug addiction. By the end of the film, each has taken steps to re-connect with what he’d lost. For Landon, the lost connection is God; for Jason, it’s martial arts. I was rooting for both of them as the film ended.

To make “Dogtown Redemption,” Amir raised more than $56,000 through a Kickstarter campaign. Now he’s talking with a distribution company to bring the film to a national audience. In addition, he’s received a grant to screen the film locally, for the purpose of outreach and engagement. He remains positive about finding solutions to the challenge of Oakland’s poorest residents.

“There’s a goodness in America that’s getting lost,” he says. “We want quick solutions, but a lot of people are getting crushed and trampled. We have a failure of imagination, love and leadership.”

Oakland’s unofficial recyclers block the street with 100 pounds of trash when we’re trying to get somewhere fast; they make noise at 5 a.m. as they go through our garbage; they steal shopping carts. Some do drugs; others use our streets as bathrooms. They may not have jobs (and there are a lot of reasons for that), but they work incredibly hard. Some city officials are trying to identify another site for a recycling center; there are sure to be those who will object.

As this issue plays itself out in our community over the coming months, I hope that as many people as possible will have the opportunity to see “Dogtown Redemption.” Once we have the opportunity to see the unseen, we’re changed.


“Dogtown Redemption” will be screened a second time Oct. 15 as part of the Mill Valley Film Festival.

-C.J. Hirschfield

C.J. Hirschfield has served for 13 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she is charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry.  C.J. is former president and current board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District. C.J. writes a weekly column for the Piedmont Post and OaklandLocal, where she loves to showcase the beauty of her city and its people. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.

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