LINCOLN SQUARE — For many, the recent indictment of a scrap yard owner accused of trading in stolen school buses simply confirmed their impression of the city's "junk truckers" as thieves.
Brian Ashby, one of the co-directors of the documentary "Scrappers," doesn't deny the less-than-scrupulous aspects of scrapping, but said it hardly represents what he witnessed in the years he spent chronicling Chicago's recycled metal market.
"One of the scrap yards we dealt with seemed on the up and up. We went back later and found out the owner was in jail for shredding up truck trailers," Ashby said.
But those operations, at least in his experience, are the exception.
"All of the major businesses that buy from the public have these rigorous controls," he said. Regular scrappers are given ID cards and their vehicles are photographed from the top and side.
"They're virtuous people," he said of "Scrappers" subjects. "I met a lot of people who pick up cans. I met people who walk 30 miles a day, stringing together five shopping carts. These are people who have a dignity about their work. It comes down to poverty and the working poor."
The film is largely centered on the daily activities of a pair of scrappers, Oscar and Otis. The former is an undocumented immigrant from Honduras who lives in the Logan Square area and struggles to support his girlfriend and young son. Otis is a South Sider well into his 70s who's eked out a living scrapping and scavenging most of his life.
"This is what's always been done since we've had metal," Ashby said. A junk peddler's license, he noted, dates back to the horse and buggy era, boosted by the city's labyrinth of alleyways.
"This is really unique to Chicago. New York City doesn't have alleys," he said.
Like a lot of Chicagoans, Ashby and his co-directors, Ben Kolak and Courtney Prokopas, were intrigued by the junk trucks that haunt the city's streets. "We were basically wondering what was going on," he said.
What the trio found was a fair amount of ambiguity.
On the one hand, he said, scrappers are a sort of free recycling service, clearing the city of a good amount of junk.
In a scene from the film, scrappers haul away an old furnace and water tank from the basement of a home. The owner calls the city's official recycling program "a joke."
"You can meet random people in the alley and have them do day labor," said Ashby.
On the other hand, he said, scrappers also tend to snag the most valuable recyclables, which the city might otherwise profit from — and the more crooked practitioners have, as with the school buses, been caught scrapping stolen merchandise.
Ashby and his co-directors began working on the film in late 2006, when scrap metal prices were at their peak, bringing in $300 to $400 per ton.
"It's a huge economy," said Ashby. "People turn to it when the money's good."
In the midst of shooting, though, the market collapsed, plummeting to just $20 for a ton of iron.
"Dealers were holding onto inventory and not buying," he said. "That totally changed what the film was going to be about."
The directors spent days riding along with two scrappers, Oscar and Otis, over the course of several changes in season. "Scrappers" unspools like a conversation, absent any narration.
"They really enjoyed spending time with us. They spend all day alone in the truck and they have a lot of thoughts about things," said Ashby. "To the extent possible, you feel like you're there."
The filmmakers were with Oscar as he filled up his truck with $100 in gas, and made less than $10 on the day's scrap haul. They captured Otis during a hospital stay, the cameras rolling as he stares out his window at a dumpster below, clearly itching to get back into action.
The directors also filmed the scrappers at home with their families: Oscar with his girlfriend Luisa and their toddler son, and Otis with his girlfriend Loretta and her son Adrian.
"We showed the families a lot of rough cuts. They really really loved it to a degree I don't quite understand," said Ashby. "Otis and Loretta, they're like Hollywood. They won't let their family bootleg the movie."
Though "Scrappers" premiered in 2010 — earning Best Documentary at the 2010 Chicago Underground Film Festival and making Roger Ebert's top 10 list of documentary films for that same year — the film has continued to gain momentum as the directors screen the work around the city.
Ashby, a resident of McKinley Park, showed the film earlier this spring at Sulzer Regional Library, drawing a packed crowd. "Scrappers" is now also available for download on iTunes and Amazon.
More recently, Ashby and Kolak have collaborated on a series of short documentaries centered on Chicago's quixotic businesses and subcultures.
The video series, called "The Grid," posts semi-regularly to Gapers Block.
But "Scrappers" is never far from Ashby's mind. He has remained in close contact with Oscar and Otis and said, "Things have continued to be hard for them."
Luisa, he said, was picked up by immigration on her way to work and is in the midst of deportation proceedings.
"That may result in another film."