Hanging Out with Chicago's Scrap Metal Collectors

By Sam Clements


The American Dream: Oscar with his truck.

If you believe certain online news outlets or people who tell you things in bars, then you probably think the scrap metal collection game is the preserve of people who value heroin over their own teeth. However, by the looks of things in the documentary Scrappers, Chicago's scrap collectors are of a much more wholesome, friendlier ilk—sucking on the industrial teat of the city and posessing a sixth sense for anything metal and shiny. A bit like Magneto, but without the lame costume and proclivity to be total dicks all the whole time.   

The film follows the daily routine of Otis, a 73-year-old, self-confessed Casanova and father of 12, and Oscar, an illegal immigrant with a family in both Chicago and Honduras. It's kind of good vibes, until the scrap metal market nose-dives into a deep, dark grave and leaves Otis and Oscar in gruel-level poverty. Anyway, I don't want to ruin it for you, so instead I spoke to two of the co-directors—Brian Ashby and Ben Kolak—and found out about following their two protagonists around for three years and how the world of scrap metal collection is intrinsically linked to crime.  

VICE: Hi guys. So why did you make a documentary about scrap metal collectors?
Ben: Well, Brian and I both studied here in Chicago on the south side of the city. There’s a nice university and money there, but it’s surrounded by other neighborhoods that very classically have inner-city problems that the whole first world is dealing with—the loss of manufacturing jobs, crime, guns, and drugs. We found the immediate landscape fascinating.

So how did you go about finding the characters in the film?
That was definitely the most challenging part of the process. We spent about six months hanging out at scrap yards, which in itself was a pretty life-changing experience. In the United States there’s a huge problem with scrap metal theft, so a lot of people who were selling  were concerned that we were looking to bust them, or the scrap yards would be concerned that we were inspectors. One guy we met at a scrap yard—and credited as an associate producer—has a long history in the Chicago Mafia. He took us to a lot of yards, told us all kinds of funny stories, and really enlightened us to the situation.


Co-directors Brian Ashby, Courtney Prokopas and Ben Kolak.

It seems like there's a lot of crime that goes hand in hand with scrapping.
Yeah, it’s a frequent enough news story involving people who smoke crack and kill each other over the metal or something like that. It's a commodity that's been tied up with gang issues and definitely something that’s tied up with race. A lot of the construction trade in Chicago has shifted from the Polish and African-American communities to the Latino communities, and since construction is a big source of this scrap metal, the race shift has gone with it, too. So those traditional racial tensions have definitely translated into scrap metal.

So the crime is still there?
Brian: Yeah, but all the scrap metal yards have very close relationships with the police. They don’t last very long if they don't. Most of them have police there almost every day because people are always bringing in stolen stuff. Nonetheless, tons and tons of material gets thrown on the pile and processed with everything else, so it’s not black and white—it’s impossible to really tell what’s stolen, which made it interesting to us. Also, the whole trade is so necessary—the city would stop functioning without it. You can’t look too closely or regulate it; it’s just kind of impossible.

How did you find it riding around with these guys?
Ben: I think what worked in particular is the enormous cultural difference between us. Rather than being a burden, it was really kind of an asset. They thought it was fun that these young, white college kids from the suburbs were riding around with them and would tell their friends about it, in exactly the same way we thought it was cool that we were riding around with them.

Was it difficult to convince them into letting you follow them around?
Brian: We were out in the street doing flyering and Oscar just pulled up next to us, smiling with a bunch of gold teeth, asking what we were doing. We told him we were looking for people like them and he was like, “Hey, do you want to come work with me?” He took us home immediately to meet his family. Otis, we just saw and spoke to. I don't think he really knew what we wanted exactly, but it seemed like he enjoyed having us along for the ride.

And it took you three years to film, right? That seems like a long time.
Ben: We only rolled a total of 100 hours of footage, so it was more like we would check in with our subjects maybe every couple of weeks. It was really hard scheduling with our subjects, because part of the thing with the scrapper trade is that they like to make their own schedule and be able to change it. I'd say over half the times we would set up to shoot with them it wouldn’t happen. We would go to their houses to meet them and they’d be out scrapping, or we’d set up to meet at a scrap yard and they wouldn’t show up.

There's a bit of a stigma about scrap metal collectors—what makes a typical scrapper in Chicago?
Brian: Those who are good at it are really nice and really outgoing. They’re always in the street flagging people down, meeting them, trying to bridge the gap with the people they meet in the alleys behind the houses here. So I think that’s kind of contrary to what most people might think. They’re very hard working; it’s a 24-hour trade.

What happened to Otis and Oscar after you finished shooting?
That brings up the question of when to stop filming, because their lives don't stop. There’s crazy, often horrendous things going on all the time. A couple of people in Otis’ family were killed in various violent confrontations, and I can’t really talk about this too much because it’s kind of ongoing, but someone in Oscar’s family is in deportation proceedings. On the whole, they continued to do the same things—scrapping when it works and prices are high, and hustling all these other kinds of jobs when they're not.

Scrappers is available on iTunes and Amazon.

Follow Sam on Twitter: @sambobclements

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