Review: ‘Shiners’

Hot Docs 2017

3 mins read

(Canada, 78 minutes)
Dir. Stacey Tenenbaum
Programme: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)


One of the traditional roles of shoe shiners, like barbers or hairdressers, is story telling: relaying neighbourhood news and information, comings and goings and passing the time. Montreal director Stacy Tenenbaum’s film finds a handful of personalities from around the world who can talk as well as they buff, making for a relaxed entertaining film that favours the slow and artisanal, touches on life choices, the intimacy of custom work and the freedom of lowered expectations.

In Japan, a young entrepreneur wears a suit while he works, and stands behind a counter, rather than squatting at the customers’ feet His boutique shop charges about $25 but comes with a glass of champagne. In La Paz, Bolivia, a young mother brings her kids with her as she shines shoes, believing the street is safer than daycare. In Sarajevo, Ramiz Hasani maintains the legacy of his father, Uncle Misho, a legendary figure who kept shining people’s shoes through the shelling of the city. In Toronto, Vincent, took up shoe shining after a traumatic accident because working with his hands was therapeutic. He works in a hipster barbershop, while preparing to return to school.

Don, in Time Square, a former accountant, comes across as your stereotypical New York hustler, keeping a constant stream of banter and jocular insults at the shoe care habits of the New Yorkers thronging around him. He’s a reasonable explanation of the value of being your own boss.

While Shiners is impressive for its travel budget and personalities, the film has little to say about the cultural history of a profession that saw its brief heyday between the availability of mass-market leather footwear in the late 19th century and commercial polish in the 20th century. It has left a trail of cultural footprints: the stories of Horatio Alger, Vittorio De Sica’s neo-realist classic film Shoeshine, and the careers of African-American icons from James Brown to Malcolm X. Only Don, who is African-American, touches on the racial history of shoe shining in the United States.

The absence of historical context is more obvious as Tenenbaum’s circles back and re-visits each of the subjects, adding digressions, reinforcing rather than changing our initial impressions of the characters. Shiners has a friendly warm sheen but even with the confines of its brisk running time, it could have gone a little deeper into the crevices.

Shiners cane be seen:
Saturday, April 28 at Isabel Bader Theatre at 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 29 at Hart House Theatre at 1 p.m.
Thursday, May 4 at Hart House Theatre at 9:30 p.m.

Liam Lacey is a freelance writer for and POV, Canada’s premiere magazine about documentaries and independent films.

Previously, he was a film critic for The Globe and Mail newspaper from 1995 to 2015. He has also contributed to such publications as Variety, Cinema Scope, Screen, and Entertainment Weekly, as well as broadcast outlets CBC and National Public Radio.

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