At the recent SXSW Film Festival, I had the pleasure of chatting with the documentary filmmaker Amy C. Elliott. Her latest film Salvage had its world premiere on opening night. This film follows a group of residents who salvage goods from an open dump in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, one of the most isolated communities in North America. In town with a long history of gold and diamond mining, these salvagers find treasure in their own unique way. You can read my review here.
Raquel Stecher: What inspired you to make your documentary?
Amy C. Elliott: I had always wanted to make a film about a dump. I think it’s interesting what we throw away from an environmental impact level… I also think on a philosophical level, the subjective nature of things is really interesting… the transitory nature of things. I also thought about the idea of a community dump as a watering hole… Who goes there? What do people take out of it? What do people leave? I thought it would be a really interesting look at a community. My beat is about how we’re shaped by where we live.
Raquel Stecher: How did you find out about the Yellowknife landfill?
Amy C. Elliott: I’m based in New York so I wanted to find a dump closer to me. It’s very important to have a site that you have access to. I looked around and in the states most of them are closed at this point for liability reasons, like it’s just not feasible to let people into a dump like the way I wanted to make movie… Then I did some research, just scouring the internet for any open dumps. I found a column in a newspaper called Tales from the Dump which is written by a guy who ended up becoming one of the protagonists of the film, Walt Humphries. I [thought] if there was a community somewhere that their dump has inspired a weekly newspaper column, I think I need to check it out. It turned out to be in Yellowknife. It was the closest dump of size that was open still to the public [but] it was 7,000 round-trip miles so it was not my first choice.
Raquel Stecher: How long did you work on this project?
Amy C. Elliott: It was filmed over close ten years. There’s ten years worth of footage in it. I went there over a period of six years regularly, annually for a couple of weeks [at a time].
Raquel Stecher: What was it like traveling to Yellowknife and did you pick a certain time of year to go?
Amy C. Elliott: It’s only 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. It’s extremely isolated. At the time, it was literally at the end of the highway. There were no other roads leading out. It was an ice road… I don’t think people realize how isolated it is. I had to take three planes to get there. It’s also stunningly beautiful. It’s one of the best places to see the Northern Lights. [Traveling there] was an obstacle. I would say it was the biggest obstacle.
I went in the Spring because I thought in the height of summer the dump would be a little too much in terms of the smell and the bugs. It gets extremely cold there. Regularly negative 50. It was still snowing [in April]. It was still super cold but it was enough light and it was warm enough that the dump smelled okay. The waste was solid enough that I felt like it was a good time to go but it was [still] not the height of mosquito season.
Raquel Stecher: What was like what was filming the dump like? Part of the fun watching the movie is all the discoveries the salvagers make. Was there anything about the dump that was shocking?
Amy C. Elliott: It was all shocking to me because I never experienced anything quite so unregulated. When I first started shooting there, we were on the open face of the dump. You see people kids, people barefoot, you could just do what you wanted. It was really a free-for-all. I got a tetanus shot before I went and filmed.
In terms of the stuff there… I thought the food was shocking for sure. Some of the most shocking stuff were the new items. like clothes with the tags still on, kid’s toys still in plastic wrapping… you just can’t help but feel like there are people who would need that stuff, would like that stuff, who would benefit from that stuff and it’s just being thrown away. I never quite got used to it. I thought that there was something really poignant about that.
For me [personally it was] the unopened rolls of film. There were just bags and bags of it. I just wanted to take it and send it to The Rescued Film Project and see what was on those rolls of film. The idea that that would be gone forever was really interesting.
Raquel Stecher: One of the biggest takeaways of the film was how resourcefulness is looked down upon. What are your thoughts on that?
Amy C. Elliott: It’s that idea of thrift. Even as the old-fashioned virtue of thrift. It seems like something out of Benjamin Franklin days. It’s hard though… Do you really want to rescue and repair a broken DVD player? You can get one for $20 completely new. We’re living in a time where we have such access to cheap things. It’s easier… and time is valuable so is it really worth your time to go rescue. That’s the dilemma of where we are now as the world came to Yellowknife.
Raquel Stecher: Was there a point when you were going to stop filming and then you continued when things started changing at Yellowknife?
Amy C. Elliott: I knew I wanted to film at least five years. I was committed to that unless something radical happened like the dump closed.I knew it was going to take a long time… The changes in the town, I could see that coming. I could see that there was something happening at the dump that was mirroring what was happening in the town. As the world became smaller… “the values from down south” as Tony talks about at the end [of the film], the consumerism, the concern with loss prevention and liability, the bureaucrats in the city were becoming more in tune with the rest of the South. It just mirrored what was happening in the dump. I think they’re intertwined intrinsically.
In my films I love exploring how where live shapes us culturally… our behavior is shaped geographically by where we live and that’s becoming rarer and rarer as the world becomes more homogeneous. As there’s a Starbucks on every corner as the world becomes… you can go anywhere now and have the same experience.
Raquel Stecher: How has the SXSW experience been for you?
Amy C. Elliott: Amazing. I love this festival. I think it’s the best. It’s one of the top tier festivals in the world but it’s also offbeat enough and different enough. They play films that you wouldn’t necessarily see it at other festivals. They really curate a different slate and the audiences who come appreciate that. A doc like Salvage is small. It’s not flashy, you do have to have some patience for it. It’s a hard film in some ways. But there’s going to be an audience here. It’s perfect place for an offbeat film like Salvage. I know that I’m going to get an audience that is engaged and wants to see that kind of stuff. I love SXSW.
Raquel Stecher: What do you hope that people will take away from Salvage?
Amy C. Elliott: That’s a two part answer. On a surface level, what I hope people take away is being more mindful of what we buy and [to think] about where it ends up. Do we really buy this next thing? Be mindful of waste. Do we have to know shepherd our products to a slightly better home rather than just throwing them out without thinking about it? The second thing would be to appreciate what’s distinct where you live and where you visit. What is special about a place and why?
Amy C. Elliott is the director of World’s Largest (2010), Wicker Kittens (2014) and Salvage (2019), all of which have premiered at the SXSW Film Festival. You can follow her on Twitter @SalvageMovie and learn more about her photography at her official website. A big thank you to Amy for taking the time out to chat with me about her film!