Independent Lens: The Art of the Shine

About This Episode

You might pass them on the sidewalk, at the mall or at the airport. They’re the shoe shiners, purveying an old school trade that seems like something out of the Mad Men era, out of step with our fast-paced, disposable consumer culture. But for the "shiners" in Stacey Tenenbaum’s joyous and quirky film The Art of the Shine, shining shoes is a calling and a passion, a way to be one’s own boss and connect with other people from all walks of life.

From New York to Toronto, from Paris and La Paz, The Art of the Shine travels the world for an inside look at a forgotten profession. The documentary captures the joy of many shoe shiners as they work and the artistic freedom the job provides, something extending to several of the film’s subjects.

In Bolivia, where shining is looked down upon, shiners wear masks so classmates and neighbors won’t know what they do for a living. In Sarajevo, we meet Ramiz, the last shoe shiner in the city, who inherited the job from his father who worked during wartime, when getting one’s shoes shined was seen as an act of resistance and a statement of hope. In Tokyo, the dapper Yuya purveys a seriously high-end shine that takes an hour and is accompanied by a flute of champagne. Others, like Vincent in Toronto, find shoe shining an effective form of therapy.

In New York, we meet Kevin and his crew, all recovering alcoholics, who he calls his “sober shoe shine gang.” Together they’ve found not only sobriety but a way of life that’s artistically and socially fulfilling. With all things retro suddenly back in fashion, shining is slowly becoming hip again, attracting younger people who elevate the profession and give it a newfound cachet.