SXSW Review: ‘Salvage’

The town of Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories is a city in transition. Founded as goal mining town in 1935, during the Depression, the city is slowly morphing into a diamond mining metropolis. However, its true treasure trove is located in the local dump. Yellowknife is one of the few cities in North America that legally permits its residents to scavenge their solid waste facility. Director Amy C. Elliott examines this municipal tradition — from its benefits to the ways it may be coming to an end — in her documentary Salvage, which just saw its SXSW premiere.

Elliott opens the film with Walt Humphries. Like many of the scavengers, he’s known as a “prospector.” But Mr. Humphries isn’t homeless; he’s not poor. He actually lives in a very spacious home. He just doesn’t like to see things go to waste — even if it’s the Army rations he discovers at the dump that “appear” to still be fresh. Humphries joins many others, including the Commisioner of the Northwest Territories: Tony Whitford — in making the daily or weekly pilgrimage to the dump.

The film charts how the dump is really the remnants of a cultural belief borne from the Great Depression: ‘Waste not, want not.’ Why go to a department store and spend an exorbitant amount of money when you can find just as well for free?

Indeed, Elliott’s documentary exposes our wastefulness — as humans — in sharp detail. The scavengers often find refrigerators with nothing wrong with them other than a cracked shelf, or teddy bears that need only a wash, or dried vacuum-sealed noodles — useful items for the poor, which are discarded without a second thought.

One would believe the scavengers are providing a needed service, yet the town of Yellowknife would rather the dump shut down. As a growing capital city, the images of citizens searching through ‘garbage’ isn’t attractive. It doesn’t exact yell, “Please, come to our fair town” to unbeknownst tourists.

And as we see new regulations instituted by hand-wringing lawyers — the city could be held liable if someone were hurt at the solid waste facility — and then, a fire erupt at the dump as well, one gets the sense of loss. In a period of Global Warming, and the ease of online shopping and compartmentalizing of community, the dump at Yellowknife is a haven for those longing for a simpler, cleaner, and wasteless way of living. In this 56-minute documentary, Elliott proves that all that glitters is truly not gold, but one man’s trash is surely another man’s treasure.

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