Award-winning filmmaker Stacey Tenenbaum co-created a critically acclaimed series in Canada, The Beat, which followed a team of beat police officers patrolling the streets of Downtown Vancouver. Exchanging the police beat for shiny feet for her new film, Tenenbaum’s The Art of the Shine [premiering on Independent Lens Monday, April 9; check local listings], travels from New York City to Tokyo to La Paz Bolivia, and beyond, in search of those artists with polish, those people who found their true calling and passion in shoe shining, a way to be one’s own boss and connect with other people from all walks of life.

In this interview with The Gate, Tenenbaum revealed that the shoe shine first captured her imagination “when she was on a six-month work placement in Mumbai, India in 1997. She would get her shoes shined every day by the same shiner. From that point on, she was hooked and fascinated.”

“Full of poignant tales and offbeat characters, this investigation of the shoe-shining profession delivers all you could ask of the doc experience,” writes the Toronto Globe & Mail’s Kate Taylor. “It’s informative, entertaining, poignant – and globe-trotting, too.”

Tenenbaum talked to us the exhausting but exhilarating making of her quirky and joyous film.

What led you to want to make a film about shoe shiners?

I am made this film for all of the shoe shiners around the world who are made to feel inferior, who suffer being ignored, and who are looked down upon on a daily basis. Hopefully, it can help create some understanding of what they do and bring a level of respect to their trade.

Who do you hope Art of the Shine can have an impact on?

I hope it will inspire regular people to wear better shoes and to care for them through shoe shining. I also want to encourage them to notice shoe shiners, to respect the trade, and to connect with their shiners as fellow human beings. Ideally, this film will bring dignity to the trade and encourage the general population to respect and treat all the people who serve them with kindness.

I would also like to raise awareness, and possibly money, for the shoe shiners in Bolivia that live in constant shame because of the job they do.

 Masked shiners in La Paz    
Masked shiners in La Paz

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film? Geography?

The biggest challenge was definitely in La Paz [Bolivia] because of the altitude. I had terrible altitude sickness – so that made filming really difficult. By the end, I was on oxygen and an IV drip. It was the toughest shoot I have ever done. It was also difficult emotionally because the shiners in La Paz are so ashamed to shine shoes that they wear masks so their friends and neighbors won’t know they do the job. So that was very sad. At the same time, I was also really inspired by the shiners I met there and their dedication to the job and to each other. It really is a brotherhood.

“I always tell people that a shoe shine is only demeaning if the client makes it that way.”How did you infiltrate the secret world of shoe shiners, and get them to trust you?

I went for a lot of shoe shines! I think that the shiners could feel how much I loved and respected their craft and that made a big difference in gaining their trust.

Every shiner I spoke with was eager to participate in the film. I think they were really surprised somebody was interested enough in the job to make a film about shoe shiners.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

I would have liked to include more about the economics of the shoe shine. Kevin from The Shoeshine Guild [formerly Shine & Co.] talked a lot about the fact that a shoe shine in NY has not gone up in price for years – people only want to pay $5 and some don’t even tip on top of that. There is no cost of living increase for shoe shiners. Kevin’s idea is to use better products and educate his customers on the value of a shoe shine so they can see the value in paying more for this service. He hopes that other shiners will do the same.

New York shoeshiner Don Ward
New York shoeshiner Don Ward

I would have also liked to dive more deeply into the class and race issues that are wrapped up in shoe shining and to explore why people are so uncomfortable about getting this service. They are not uncomfortable to get a manicure or a haircut but when it comes to shoeshines it’s a different story.

Do you have a scene in your film that is especially a favorite or made the most impact on you?

I kind of love the whole story we shot in Sarajevo. You could just feel the love that the city had for this shoe shiner who shined their shoes during the war. He was able to give them a sense of normalcy. and even make them laugh, in what was an incredibly dark time.  It just shows how a person doing a seemingly small job can have a huge impact.

What did you discover making this film that surprised you?

I think the thing which surprised me the most was that shoe shining is actually an opportunity to bring the classes together. I had never thought of it that way until I started doing this film and talking to shoe shiners about their experiences. I found out that many clients talk with their shiners and even develop friendships with them which completely transcend class.

It is the exact opposite of what people think. Most people when they see a shoe shine think it exacerbates the class divide since the client sits above the shoe shiner and will often ignore the person at their feet.

I think that’s why a lot of people are uncomfortable with getting their shoes shined. They think they are sparing the shoe shiner some sort of indignity by not getting their shoes shined. When you think about it, what they are really doing is depriving the shiner of a living wage just so they can feel better about themselves for not looking down on the lower classes.

I always tell people that a shoe shine is only demeaning if the client makes it that way.

Do you have any updates on the shoe shiners featured in the film?

Vincent is now a barber at the Nite Owl Barber Shop in Toronto. He has trained two other shoe shiners to take over his work.

Don Ward is still shining on the corner of W 47 and 6th.

It will be his 17th year on that corner.

Yuya Hasegawa won the World Shoe Shine Championships in London in 2017.

boots from art of the shineA Shine  & Co. rebranded as The Shoeshine Guild. They recently celebrated their 22nd year in business and will be opening a shoe shine school soon.

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Dish: Women and the Art of ServiceI was hired to find the Montreal characters in this film and I really loved working with the director during the Montreal filming. She is a female director and I admired how she was able to deal with issues relating to sexism and class while exploring a simple profession. It gave me confidence that a film about shoe shining could do the same.

OJ Made in America: I watched the whole thing twice and would watch it again. It is just so incredibly well crafted. I had no interest in watching a film about the OJ trial, but when I heard it was about race in America I decided to watch it. The film grabbed me from the first frame and it never let go.

The Ten Commandments:  It’s probably the film I have seen the most in my life. It’s just one of those holiday traditions. I love it for the kitsch, overacting, and the costumes!

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

I’m working on a competition documentary about young pipe organists. It’s kind of like Spellbound for organs music. I’m a sucker for quirky characters and dying arts.

CBC Radio interview with Stacey Tenenbaum on Art of the Shine: