SXSW Review: Salvage


Filmed over the course of nine years in Yellow Knife, Canada, Salvage is a straight forward presentation of a difficult documentary, which is something, considering its runtime is under an hour. Director Amy Elliott was motivated to find a story about a dump and, ultimately, what motivates people to throw things in the trash. Thanks to the nifty internet, she found a local newspaper column in the small northern town of Yellow Knife dedicated entirely to the town’s dump and specifically to its salvage area. The players, the townsfolk of sleepy, not so sleepy-sounding Yellow Knife, and most importantly, the Yellow Knife dump. The stage, the world. Sure, Elliott’s lens never strays from Yellow Knife, but as we watch The Dump grow and age before our eyes, the effects of the world pressing in on an isolated community over the nine-year period from 2009 to 2018 are both evident and vast.

It’s an important film that poses many questions, but offers few answers about societal progression, the increasingly regulated world that we live in, about consumption, and localized sustainability and low-waste / no-waste initiatives.

Salvage Trailer from Amy C. Elliott on Vimeo.

Director: Amy Elliott
Rated: NR
Release Date: March 8, 2019

When I say Salvage is straight forward, like G-Eazy, I mean it. It’s lean. As if Elliott’s taken her directorial cue from the town’s namesake, aimed it at her footage and carved a precision cut, a choice tenderloin that leaves no gristle, no fat to chew. It’s an undiluted view of a specific group of people in a specific town. We know this when the film’s establishing shot is of the sign for the Yellow Knife dump. We move right on inside. What follows is a mix of interviews with those that routinely salvage, or ‘prospect’ inside the dump, and a few local government and municipal officials and employees (at one point, someone comments how half of Yellow Knife’s 20,000 residents work for the government in one way or another). The prospectors want to keep things the way they are. The government officials don’t. The landfill employees seem to be largely indifferent, but enjoy a bit of local notoriety as the men who run the place.

What appears to be a classic case of one group fighting to hold onto the past and another pushing for progress is anything but. The government, in its efforts to limit the salvage area of the dump and restrict citizen access to its contents represents progress, in that progress is always change. And while the past is represented by people trying to prevent change, their motivations are often idealistic, based on notions that are associated with a different kind of progress, progress that large swaths of modern society can get behind, progress aimed at sustainability, reducing waste, reducing unnecessary consumption, increasing recycling, increasing reuse, and a goal of a balance of consumption. It’s simple, the citizens seem to posit: don’t buy things you don’t need, don’t just throw things away—see if someone else needs the thing you no longer need, and put some effort not just into your consumption as a human being, but in your post-consumption habits.

Of course, nothing’s ever simple when dealing with idealized or progressive ideas. There are often complications. And, even more so, a film without complications, without conflict, is not as engaging. In Yellow Knife, the complications are familiar, human ones. Fear and laziness. The government (at least in its presentation to Elliott and its public presentation to its citizens) fears litigation. They say the salvage area of the dump is too dangerous (to be clear, when Salvage begins, the entire dump is essentially open to salvage).

The increasing overregulation of our lives has in large part been driven by the fear of lawsuits, and this presentation is just playing out in a microcosm of human progress. Yellow Knife has changed a lot over the past decade just like the rest of the world. In Q&A following the film’s premiere, Elliott noted that the cost of a ticket to fly there began at $1,200, and was only $400 by the time she last flew there in 2018. Additionally, the mighty Amazon came. The corporation’s tributaries-come-easy shipping routes now reach far into northern Canada and allow people to consume for low-cost postage. Subsequently, not as many people are seeking out what they need from the dump, they’re just pushing the buy with one-click button on Amazon.

You might ask yourself, so what if the government doesn’t want the dump open to salvage! If the people, enough people, rise up and speak for a cause, the government will cave. Sort of. Governments are pesky like that. And here, we see a shift in the habits of Yellow Knife’s population: less people are going to the dump. When the film begins, six or seven hundred cars are visiting it a day. By the doc’s conclusion, we’re down to a trickle of stubborn prospectors. With easier access to Yellow Knife, more and more new people have arrived. They don’t know the old ways. More so, they don’t need to adopt them as the means of consumption have changed too.

The few residents that do continue to seek gold in the refuse don’t seem to understand it. They can’t see the reason for the waste when the find brand new, never used items in the trash (including several people who find food to eat there). They can’t understand why someone would get rid of something that’s still perfectly good, or that just needs a minor repair. Some profit from this, whether it’s in putting food on their plate, or by selling things on eBay. But here, Elliott captures people not fully understanding human nature. Yes, when cardboard and glass are thrown into the salvage area instead of designated bins, it’s laziness. But sometimes, people just need to get rid of things. An old wedding dress isn’t mindless creation of waste. Perhaps it’s someone dealing with emotional baggage from a divorce. A family photo album isn’t someone deciding they no longer find their keepsakes fashionable. Perhaps it’s an heir going through their deceased loved one’s belongings and just not being able to keep it all.

I think too, that the film, and the residents of Yellow Knife portrayed in it, doesn’t offer solutions on how to get things from one party who no longer needs them to another who does. A database of unwanted and wanted items that people can scour? It will cost money to mail them. Or, the argument who has time for that? And I think that’s one of the biggest not spoken components of the argument for dump salvage, that the people who are routinely visiting and routinely sorting and finding things to repurpose (often time spending time to bring them back to usable standards) are spending a lot of time doing it. In several instances, you can see borderline obsessive tendencies, seemingly driven by deep-seated emotional responses to certain items, driving the salvaging. And who can blame them–the idea of getting something of value for free is a deep-rooted, even treasured one.

In any event, the arguments for the salvage portion of the dump being a means to a better use of resources is an incomplete one, at least for now. Elliott herself might not even be addressing these questions. I think she’s merely presenting this one extraordinary occurrence in a remote Canadian town and offering us a view into the lives of some of its citizens. It’s a portrait documentary more than anything else, one that documents the ever-evolving landscape of the human experience in an interesting locale. She does it well, finding moments to cut to residents discovering pornographic magazines who hastily stop examining them with the offhand comment that their wife is there, or discovering a diamond in the rough, a two-headed dildo that they feverishly punch at to turn on. (Thankfully it doesn’t. But they handle the used sex toy, sans gloves or sanitizer, an thorough amount.)

Salvage is, at the end of the day, thought provoking, and may make you rethink about it the next time you decide to throw something you no longer want away in the trash, or toss a glass bottle when you could recycle it. I hope someone is inspired to attempt to answer some of the film’s seemingly unanswerable questions. Short and to the point, it leaves solutions up to the viewers.