**The following story was first published last April. Shiners is screening again at the Royal Cinema, 608 College St., Toronto on Feb. 17, 18 and 20, 2018.
As I walk to an interview with Montreal documentarian Stacey Tenenbaum, I become very conscious of the drabness of my grey shoes.
Normally, my footwear is not something that I think too much about unless I’m dressing for important events and functions. However, Tenenbaum’s new documentary, Shiners, is an ode to shoe shiners from around the world.
After watching 78 minutes of these entrepreneurs scuffing and scrubbing, I worry that Tenenbaum will instantly comment on my shoes’ less-than-immaculate state.
“You should have clean shoes,” Tenenbaum tells me, shortly into our interview. “I would encourage everyone [to get them shined] – especially the ladies, because I know a lot of ladies are uncomfortable about [it]. But it’s just a great feeling. To be up on that chair is awesome!”
When Tenenbaum talks about shoe shining, her speech quickens and her enthusiasm becomes contagious. That passion emanates from every minute of Shiners, which will have its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto.
The film screens on April 29 at the Isabel Bader Theatre, and at the Hart House Theatre on April 30 and May 4. (Unsurprisingly, Toronto’s Bata Shoe Museum is a co-presenter of the film’s festival screenings.)
To capture the arcane, but far from archaic, art of shoe shining, Tenenbaum hopped on a lot of planes. She filmed for many weeks in France, Japan and Bolivia, as well as closer to home, with shoots in New York City and Toronto.
The documentary captures the joy of many shoe shiners as they work. One unforgettable screen presence is Don, a shoe polisher near Times Square in Manhattan, who gregariously advertises his services to the hundreds of people who walk by his chair every day.
In Japan, we meet Yuya, who has opened a dapper studio for private shoeshines. Instead of crouching beneath the customers, Yuya puts their shoes on a table so he can talk to his patrons, face to face, as he works.
Don and Yuya are able to make a living from their work, although the employment conditions differ in other countries. In La Paz, Bolivia, Tenenbaum profiles a woman who works as a shoe shiner after picking up her children from school. However, in Bolivia, there is a stigma attached to the job.
“It’s really considered the lowest job you can have,” Tenenbaum says, adding that many workers still get their shoes shined despite the shame associated with the trade.
“[Bolivians] actually really value the service, but they don’t value the people who do the job.”
This is in large contrast to Hong Kong, she says, where the handful of employed shiners can make $10 per customer and serve close to 80 clients a day.
Tenenbaum says the subject first intrigued her during an internship in Mumbai, India, where she would regularly visit a shoe shiner.
“I always thought it was a cool job, and then I kind of realized that no one else thought it was a cool job,” she says, laughing.
Some of that may have to do with the dynamic of customers sitting on a chair, while the shiner works below. This positioning makes some people uncomfortable, although Tenenbaum reiterates that one can only demean a shoe shiner if he or she forgets to tip, or doesn’t make conversation with the polisher.
“There’s [often] that opportunity in shoe shining to connect with someone you would never meet,” she says.
At Shiners’ world premiere, Tenenbaum will reunite with several of the subjects from the film, including Vincent, a university student from Toronto, who the filmmaker originally found on Instagram.
In the documentary, Vincent talks about recovering from a motorcycle accident and how working as a shoe shiner has forced him to interact with others and helped him find peace. The support and artistic freedom the job provides is something that extends to several of the film’s subjects.
“They really take pride in their work,” Tenenbaum says. “They like being their own bosses. It’s also something where you can become an entrepreneur very quickly and cheaply.”
The shoe shiners will be offering their services to spectators at the Hot Docs screenings, and Tenenbaum says those who purchase tickets should dress their feet accordingly.
“It’s just good for your shoes, to get them shined and keep them in good shape! And be nice to your shoe shiner and tip them! That’s important.”
Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival runs April 27 to May 7, 2017. www.hotdocs.ca