Salvage

A common saying asserts that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. For the residents of Yellowknife, the capital city of Canada’s Northwest Territories, this motto is life – at the local garbage dump. Far from being a landfill of useless rubbish, it has become a communal meeting place for the local residents, who happily spend their time digging through piles of junk to find anything from car parts to wedding dresses. Unfortunately, the city council isn’t thrilled about all this activity in their trash heaps, and they seem determined to curb it. Director Amy C. Elliott examines this unusual meeting ground – and the political tensions around it – in her entertaining documentary Salvage.

Yellowknife rose to prominence as a mining town, first with gold, then with diamonds. As miners, the residents learned the importance of conservation, reuse, and recycling, especially considering the remote location of the city. As the population grew, so did the waste, drawing people determined not to see useful items carelessly discarded, especially when they were in good condition. Eventually, this became a way of life for the local residents, who flock to the dump like fanboys to a comic book store. People decorate their entire homes with what they salvage from the heaps. They replace expensive appliances, fix cars, and even feed themselves on their unique prospecting. The way they see it, they’re saving money and putting items to good use, much to the chagrin of the city politicians.

“…a communal meeting place for the local residents, who happily spend their time digging through piles of junk…”

The local government’s main concern seems to be the few lawsuits that have arisen from people injuring themselves while scavenging, though the avid “collectors” see it more as an institutional change in the city’s demographics. With more outsiders moving to the town, more regulations come into effect, transforming the once anarchistic outpost of Yellowknife into a respectable place for new residents to raise their children. After all, if injuries were the main concern, they could just have everyone sign a release before entering the dump.

Elliott captures it all with humor and respect for her subjects. The townspeople don’t come off as inbred hillbillies, rather they make very intelligent arguments as to why this pastime is so important. When the city imposes an alternative way to scavenge on them, they have valid reasons that it doesn’t work. These are smart people who know the history of their town, have lived there their entire lives and only want to preserve something they believe ties them to the history of their city.

“…transforming the once anarchistic outpost of Yellowknife into a respectable place for new residents…”

Imagine doing something you’ve done your entire life and suddenly finding out you can’t do it anymore. Rifling through trash may not seem like a big deal, but it means the world to the residents of Yellowknife, Canada. In some cases, it allows residents to be able to afford their homes. Perhaps the rich and powerful want to see them lose their homes so they can buy the land and develop it. There’s always a first step toward gentrification. At least Salvage is here to speak for the locals.

Salvage (2019) Directed by Amy C. Elliott. Starring Walt Humphries, Velma Sterenberg, Tony Whitford and Dave Kellett. Salvage screened at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.

8 out of 10 stars

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