I went to the ‘Drunken Film Festival’ in Bradford last week. Feel free to imagine me juggling with my popcorn as I staggered down the cinema aisle, but I’m afraid that’s not what happened (sorry to disappoint). It was actually a celebration of short independent films from around the world. Not a Transformer, Marvel Avenger or gratuitous explosion in sight. Heaven.
From the documentary shorts I saw, I could if I chose to, now regale you on such topics as the history and detail of caviar preparation and consumption; paedophile hunters; or the guy who holds the record for a no hands bike wheelie (16 miles). But I won’t. It was the final film ‘Shiners’, on the art of shoe shining and stories of shoe shiners around the world, that’s my focus here. It really was food for the sole (again, sorry).
Two things especially captivated me about this celluloid gem. First was the variety of contrasting personal stories. There was the jovial black guy in New York who put a smile on people’s faces with his mock horrified banter: “The hair looks good – what about the shoes??” etc. The mother of four children in La Paz, Bolivia, taking pride in being one of the very few women shiners, but struggling to make ends meet and dreaming of better prospects for her kids. Then the lone shiner in Sarajevo who’d taken over from his father – who’d kept shining amidst the shells and sniper bullets of the 1990’s conflict. And perhaps most striking of all, the young guy in Japan who took such pride in the job that he’d opened a shoe shining parlour and elevated it to a high art.
That last point touches on the pride, satisfaction, meaning and significance these and other individuals find in their apparently menial work. For instance, one middle-aged former alcoholic speaks of the sense of well-being he’d found simply from the other-centred-ness that shoe-shining brought – turning his attention away from himself and his problems. Another notes the emerging attitude of respect from customers as she engages with them as an equal in a traditionally ‘looked down on’ occupation. The Japanese guy seeks nothing less than a ‘revolution from the feet up’. That’s ambition for you. I’m in. Feet first.
All this points to some inspiring deeper truths, and here are just two. There’s something heart-warming about giving such attention to what can be considered the lowliest garment (even if it IS one of the top two that women look at on a guy); so how much do I honour and lift up the lowly, humble people and things in my life? Also, an unseen or obscure task can acquire a sheen of magic when invested with love, devotion and pride. It can even be transformed into (part of) a path of redemption, of sorts.
Jesus and his band of followers had little need of shoe shiners; sandals were more the thing then I’m told. But he washed dusty feet, and ran a specialist line in lifting up the lowly and offering radical transformation. His patter wasn’t bad either. So I reckon he’s right in there with shiners the world over. This film got me right in there with them too.