SCRAP Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum Interview — Sadness With A Smile

SCRAP Stacey Tenenbaum
Image by Lisa Ferguson

Overwhelming beauty might come from where you least expect it…

SCRAP Stacey Tenenbaum
Filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum

 You too might feel that it’s hard not to be taken by the very meditative nature of Scrap. The documentary follows different communities as they (re)build things out of material that has been discarded and left behind. From Scrap, we pay attention to how our scraps take on a new life. They can also actually end up giving us a window into the lives of the unique communities that spawned them. As Scrap filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum puts it “... I wanted to show all of the rust and scars that these things bore which is what makes them unique. It is the same with people, our life experiences make us who we are - including all of the scars and bruises we get along the way.”

Here Picture This Post (PTP) talks to Stacey Tenenbaum (ST) about Scrap, her thoughts on upcycling, and filming the unique experiences of others.

(PTP) What ideas did you want to explore with your film?

(ST) I went into the film wanting to show people what happens to the things we use so that they would begin to care more about these things. I also wanted to show that we can have a deep attachment to things and that there is value in them in terms of connecting us with our history and each other. When we buy and throw things away too easily this connection is lost and I feel it impoverishes us as a society. Each of the characters in the film were chosen as they shared my views and wanted to get across the same points as I did in the film.

…(we) shared my feelings surrounding the need to mitigate the harmful effects of our throw-away culture .So we all had a shared vision and goal for the film. In that way, it wasn't difficult to portray their beliefs and experiences because I shared them. Things did make it into the film based on what was happening in the character's lives. John's father died during the making of the film which led me to film the story about the tree he created for his dad. Strangely, I was also going through the sudden death of my mother at the time, so our lived experiences were sadly in sync. I ended up dedicating the film to my mother just as John had made the tree for his dad.

How did you elicit strong feelings of nostalgia in the film?

It was not hard to do as most of the people I chose to be in the film had these deep connections to the things that were discarded. They were nostalgic themselves so it came across on screen. I did make an effort through the way the film was edited and through the sound design and music to enhance those feelings of nostalgia. We used the sounds made from the things like phones and trams to bring them back to life in a way.  While making the film, nostalgia was always at the top of my mind. It is a hard emotion to capture and I wanted to make sure I got it right. I would tell the editor and the composer that the feeling should be 'sadness with a smile'. It's that feeling of loss which creates the initial sadness but then you start to remember all the nice things you shared with the person, or the good times you had using that thing, and the smile comes through. That's what I wanted to capture in the film. I think nostalgia is a powerful emotion, which is often not tapped into in traditional environmental films.

I think the film is a big surprise to people as they don't expect a film about scrap metal to move them emotionally. Since I set out to make a film that would encourage people to care about the things around them, I knew that I would need to create that emotion. The first step was just to show the beauty of these things and then to show the feelings my characters had toward them. I knew that if I could capture those two things that I could bring the audience along with me and get them to feel and think differently. My feelings have not changed that much during the filming as my heart has always been in this place. If anything, I feel even more strongly that the effects of throw-away culture are more serious and far-reaching than we can fathom. Since working on the film my interest in upcycling and repair has been doubled.

How did you research and communicate with the people you contacted in order to understand their lived experiences?

Initially I started researching where things like planes, trains etc. ended up. I found a bunch of metal graveyards around the world and then I went about finding interested people to act as our human guides into these places. Typically, I reach out to people by email first with a description of the project and my intentions as a filmmaker. Then I set up a time to call or zoom with the person. Usually in the phone call I will do a full interview with the person and will talk with them about what I would like to film with them and how long that would take.  During the interview I want to know as much about their daily activities and plans as possible so I can get ideas of things that might be interesting to film. Often it is the people I am working with who come up with ideas or suggestions for things to film. In foreign countries where I don't speak the language, I hire a fixer to help with that process. The fixer in Thailand visited the people in the airplane graveyard several times over a year before they were comfortable enough with us to allow us to film in their home. I also went there on a scout to meet the people and talk with them before the shoot,  o by the time I went to film they were comfortable having us around.

Can you share with Picture This Post readers the aesthetics you sought in order to highlight the messages of the film?

I knew since the beginning that I wanted the film to be beautiful and cinematic. I wanted it to be beautiful to show the beauty of these things so that their loss would feel even more poignant. The film is really about honoring things and I wanted to do that through the cinematography.

There are a lot of wide cinematic shots of landscapes and metal graveyards, but there is also some intimacy in the close-up shots of the rusted things. I wanted to show all of the rust and scars that these things bore which is what makes them unique. It is the same with people, our life experiences make us who we are - including all of the scars and bruises we get along the way. I also decided to do rusted transitions to bring us from one story to the next. At first, I had blacks separating each story but they felt too much like endings. I wanted the film to have a flow from one story to the next so that viewers could feel like they were taking on a journey through the film rather than seeing a bunch of separate stories. The rust transitions were surprisingly difficult to achieve. At first, I tried to make actual rust and film it through timelapse but we didn't have enough control over the process to make that work. Eventually we created the rust transitions digitally with real images of rust which we animated.

What was your approach to film editing?

I take it as a serious responsibility to honestly portray the people I follow in my films. I feel that if they are going to open their lives to me, it is my job to make sure that how I edit together their story is accurate and kind. I am a very optimistic person who is always looking for the best in others, so when it comes to editing, I tend to edit stories together to show people in the best possible light. Luckily, I usually only work with people I like and respect, so that is easy to do.


SCRAP Stacey Tenenbaum
Image by William Mackenzie

What impact would you like the film to have?

I think that there's a lot of different pieces that I'm hoping will stay with people after seeing this film because there are so many different ideas and feelings it explores. It touches on the importance of the things we use, the consequences of our disposable culture, and how creativity can be a source of environmental change. I'm imagining it's just going to sort of percolate with people and, after they see the film, different people might latch onto different parts of the environmental and human messages I am presenting. The end goal would be to have people more involved in trying to create change. I think the first step is getting people to be like, “Hey, what happens to that phone booth that used to be on my corner, or where does my cell phone go when I throw it out?” and the next step would be for them to decide they want to change the way they consume and dispose of the things in their lives. What I wanted to do in the film was to show people – ‘this is where your stuff ends up’. I think just knowing that can compel some people to behave differently.

I would just like (Picture This Post readers) to know that it is not so difficult to make a difference. The first step is buying things that are made to last longer and things which can be repaired. Look for things which are made well, have lifetime warranties, or that can be repaired. This doesn't only go for scrap metal but for everything else from shoes to toasters. People can also buy second hand at flea markets or online and they can sell or upcycle their own stuff rather than throwing it away. They can also learn the lost art of repair. I have partnered with repair cafes and tool libraries in cities across North America who are teaching people how to fix their stuff rather than throw it away. If you are not crafty you can also buy from artists and companies that are upcycling old materials. Even cell phones can be fixed to keep them longer. I am partnered with Ifixit that provides the tools and the information to help people do that. There are also charities like Canadian National Institute for the Blind and Secure the Call in the USA that are taking old phones, fixing them and making them usable for people in need. So we have options and it is easy and fun to build more sustainable practices into our lives.

For more information visit the Scrap website.



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Photo slider images by Stacey Tenenbaum, Parker Lewis, Anuj Singh, and William Mackenzie.

All images courtesy of Scrap and Stacey Tenenbaum, unless otherwise indicated.

Read how filmmakers make their magic— in their own words. Read “FILMMAKERS SPOTLIGHT— Meet Filmmakers Picture This Post LOVES!” and watch this video for a story preview —

Yash Pathak
Yash Pathak

About the Author: Yash Pathak

Yash keeps an extensive back catalogue of ideas circulating around his head and his room- papers and papers of impractical but still meaningful thoughts written mostly in English, other times in Hindi, and sometimes in gibberish. There was a lot of his mind he found represented within the medium of film. Ever since discovering the likes of Truffaut and Godard, he started theorizing, thinking, and reading as much as he possibly could. He has a keen knowledge of niche facets of its history, and can give a lecture on just about any decade of movie-making. He keeps an eye and an ear on the heart of San Francisco, his home, and when he isn't writing he is working on making films, playing music, repairing old film projectors, curating art for small venues, sewing, or just relaxing in a park he will eventually get around to learning the name of.

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