By: Jessica Goddard

An intercontinental survey of the state of the archaic shoe shining profession, Stacey Tenenbaum’s Shiners is endearing in its graceful simplicity and ability to shine a spotlight on truly memorable, delightful characters.  Tenenbaum has a genuine gift for seeking out excellent subjects – from the quirky and lovable, to the inspiring and pleasantly puzzling.  All have in common a philosophical attitude towards the work of shoe shining;  whether they consider it a bona fide art, a cornerstone of culture, or an honest necessity of survival.

In the United States, we meet a minor celebrity of shoe shining in Manhattan, who boasts that the freedom his work gives him has made him happier than the Wall Street types that pass him on the daily.  Then there’s a small, plucky squad of recovering alcoholics supporting one another as they earn money shining shoes and thriving through exposure to human connection.

Toronto is fondly represented through Nite Owl, an Etobicoke barber shop so distinctly old-fashioned it feels modern.  The shop offers shoe shining alongside its other services, principally done by a charming Ryerson student who’s still recovering from a serious motorcycle accident years ago.

Across the world in Tokyo, an entrepreneur who’s trained for years at the trade is operating a chic shoe polishing parlour, pairing a posh, lounge-like atmosphere with the highest quality products and complimentary wine.  The owner is singularly dedicated to his “revolution from the feet up”, through which he hopes to flip the stigma associated with shoe shining by turning the experience into a luxury service and high-value experience.

In La Paz, Bolivia, shoe shining culture is markedly different from the rest.  Shoe shining is a source of such shame and embarrassment that those who do it to survive wear masks covering all but their eyes to avoid identification.  The documentary focuses in on an essentially single mother who not only leaves her face uncovered on the street, but takes her children with her on the job as the daycares she’s tried in the past have abused her young children.

Lastly, there’s the sort of inspiring, sort of disconcerting story of “Sarajevo’s last shoe shiner”, the son of a recently-deceased local celebrity who’d been a shoe shining staple in the community.  The late father had insisted on being out in the street every day shining shoes during the war in the 1990s, and his son has picked up that torch in his honour.

Unsurprisingly, this documentary is much less about shoe shining (it doesn’t go into much depth on the technical aspects of the trade) than it is about the modern day gatekeepers of the profession.  What it presents is a uniquely varied, multifaceted look at what it means to work in manual labour as economies all over the world slowly turn away from services requiring strangers to interact.  It can be preachy and naïve at moments, but that’s on the part of the subjects, rather than the documentarian.  Shiners is a light, gentle reminder that everyone has a story, and there’s definitely something valuable to be lost as the more interactive trades continue to fall out of fashion.


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Readers Comments (1)

  1. Tenenbaum begins this odyssey with these sorts of dismissive remarks from people as they pass by shiners: “Insignificant (work) … Derogatory … Do they make any money? ” Don, a l6-year vet of the shiner trade in New York City, has heard all the clichés.


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