Premieres on Independent Lens Monday, April 9 at 10 PM ET on PBS
(Check Your Local Listings)
You might pass them on the sidewalk, at the mall or at the airport. They’re the shoe shiners, purveying an old school trade that seems like something out of the Mad Men era, out of step with our fast-paced, disposable consumer culture. Yet, to many of the shoe shiners in Stacey Tenenbaum’s joyous and quirky film, shining shoes is a calling and a passion, a way to be one’s own boss and connect with other people.
The Art of the Shine travels from Toronto to Paris to New York to La Paz and beyond, introducing viewers to shiners who share their feelings about their work. In Bolivia, where shining is looked down upon, shiners wear masks so their classmates and neighbors won’t know what they do for a living. In Sarajevo, we meet Ramiz, the last shoe shiner in the city. Ramiz inherited his job from his father, who was beloved — during the Bosnian war, the simple act of getting one’s shoes shined was seen as an act of resistance and a statement of hope.
With a renewed interest in all things ‘retro,’ shining is slowly becoming hip again. In cities like New York, Toronto, and Tokyo, the job is attracting younger people who are working to elevate the profession and give it a newfound cachet. Some are turning the trade into an art form, hand-painting luxury shoes to create custom patinas and designs. In Tokyo, the dapper Yuya purveys a seriously high-end shine that takes an hour and is accompanied by a flute of champagne. Others, like Vincent in Toronto, find shoe shining an effective form of therapy.
In New York, we meet Kevin and his crew, all recovering alcoholics, who he calls his “sober shoe shine gang.” Together they’ve found not only sobriety but a way of life that’s artistically and socially fulfilling. Says Kevin: “I feel like I have the secret to life.” Don, who works from a cart on Fifth Avenue, would probably agree. A former accountant and baker, he gave up the stressful 9-to-5 routine for shoe shining and has never looked back. Joking with people on the street and chatting with his harried customers, Don wouldn’t trade his life for theirs. “This is freedom. It pays the bills and I’m free. I think I live a happier life – I stopped chasing my tail.”
“We live in a disposable culture: use, discard, buy again. What happened to ‘waste not, want not’?” says Lois Vossen, Independent Lens Executive Producer. “Stacey’s film is about manual labor and what we value — the objects we do or don’t take care of and the people behind that work. It reminds us that professions like shoe shining help create and maintain social bridges, a way for people of different social classes to interconnect. And it makes shoe shining cool again.”