I love shining my shoes. It’s a process I look forward to, not a chore I avoid. It’s also a skill I’m happy to keep developing and learning about. Since I do it myself, however, I rarely require the services of shoe shiners (except for the occasional glaçage from my friend Emmanuel Farré). But I certainly have a lot in common with those people, around the world, who work hunched over other people’s shoes. The smell of wax and shoe cream, the feel of leather and suede as well as the joy of a glimmering toe box. The thing is, we don’t often hear the stories of these anonymous footwear caretakers.
Canadian documentary film maker Stacey Tenenbaum is changing that. At the upcoming Hot Docs Festival in Toronto, she is debuting her new film “Shiners: The Art of the Shoe Shine.” I was able to speak with Stacey in advance of the screening and our talk – along with the following trailer – convinced me I need to check out the movie.
Shot in Asia, Europe, New York, Bolivia and our very own Hogtown, Stacey delves into the lives of shoe shiners to uncover their personal stories. It is a film about manual labour as well as what we value – not only the objects we do or don’t take care of but the people themselves behind the work. Stacey found that in some cultures, like in Paris and Toronto, shoe shining is appreciated as a work of art. But in other places, like Bolivia – where the vast majority of people, even the poorest, get their shoes polished – shiners are at the bottom of the social barrel. I wanted to know, after profiling all these folks, what had Stacey discovered that drove them to continue shining shoes? “There’s something deeply satisfying,” she told me, “about making something old and dusty new again.”
On a bigger scale, what Stacey learned about shoe shining is that is helps create and maintain social bridges, something sorely lacking in society today. “It’s really a way for classes to interconnect more than they would normally,” she says, pointing out the number of times she saw executives sharing stories with people who earn a fraction of their pay.
The Toronto connection in the film comes via a young barber and shoe shiner at The Nite Owl. Vincent Cicero contacted Stacey when she had pretty much finished shooting. But he had such a compelling story Stacey wanted to include it in the film. I don’t want to give too much away but for Vincent, a third generation shoe shiner, the work helped him overcome one of his life’s biggest challenges and set him on a new path.
When I asked Stacey if she had picked up any shoe shining techniques herself, she admitted that she doesn’t polish her shoes, she just loves having it done. She told me, however, about a character who didn’t make it into the film, an old shiner in Hong Kong with a unique process. Instead of applying thin layers of wax using a cloth or brush, he rubs a large chunk into the shoe until the leather feels right. He then begins polishing. And he does all this from touch alone because he’s blind.
“Shiners” debuts on Saturday, April 29 at the Isabel Bader Theatre. The opening will feature a contingent from New York’s A Shine & Co (who will be giving away shoe shine kits), Vincent from the Nite Owl as well as a few shiners doing their work in person. Tickets for all three showtimes can be found through the film’s web site. And for those of you not in Toronto for the debut, Stacey tells me the movie will be aired later this year on the Documentary Channel. She’s also trying to get the film into festivals around the world for those outside of Canada.