Shoe shiners: at the airport, a busy subway station, a kiosk in your local mall, even on the street corner. There they are, every day, providing a service to the people walking by. Yet this humble profession is often overlooked. Who goes into shoe shining, and why? Director Stacey Tenenbaum gives us a documentary that gives us the answers by putting us in the shoes of shiners around the world.
Filming in cities as diverse as New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Sarajevo, La Paz, and more, Shiners gives a good sense of the universality of pride in one’s work. However, it is also clear that the profession is not viewed the same from one country to the next. In America it is being reclaimed by hipsters who deride the neglect of older crafts. In Japan we see a lot of honour in the skill, in making something old new again. But in other places, it’s seen as degrading work, and the shiners work on the street, earning little money and even less respect.
In that way, Tenebaum quietly addresses poverty and social justice without quite mentioning it directly. Shiners is a character-driven documentary, the shiners speaking for themselves. A mother of young children barely earns enough to feed her family; she refuses to be shamed for her position but insists that her children will be ‘professionals.’
Don, a.k.a. the shoe dude, working a street corner in Manhattan, has a vibrant personality. A former accountant and pastry chef, he’s chosen shoe shining for the sense of freedom it gives him. He talks candidly about the racist connotations of shoe shining, and the satisfaction he’s derived from telling “uppity people” their shoes are dirty.
Shiners excels at providing an insider’s view. It cracks the humanity wide open, and guarantees that you’ll never walk by these people without seeing them again.
This review first appeared at Cinema Axis.