________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 24. . . .February 26, 2010


Carts of Darkness.

Murray Siple (Writer & Director). Tracey Friesen (Producer). Rina Fraticelli (Executive Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2008.
59 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153C 9107 405.

Subject Headings:
Homeless men -Bitish Columbia - North Vancouver - Biography.
Shopping cards - Speed.
Estrange sports - British Columbia - Noth vancouver

Grades 6 and up / Ages 11 and up.

Review by Julie Chychota.

*** /4


As Murray Siple shadows “binners” in his North Vancouver neighborhood, he not only sheds light on this relatively obscure subculture, but he also recovers a sense of the “outlaw energy” snowboarding once evoked for him. In an interview with a Rabble.ca journalist posted on the NFB’s Website, Siple confirms that the documentary film’s title is a play on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the protagonist “follows other characters up the river and discovers something about himself he never expected” (http://beta.nfb.ca/film/carts-darkness-interview/). Likewise, Siple follows his interviewees down what he calls the “asphalt river” and begins his own journey of self-discovery.

     Carts of Darkness, which draws on the impressive Rockies and Vancouver skyline for its background, contains the occasional footage of ships in the harbor and snowboarders in the mountains. Yet, its true genius is character-driven, so that the scenery and music take a backseat to Siple’s unlikely, but extremely likeable, heroes. Binners are individuals who, with the aid of shopping carts lifted from grocery stores, retrieve drink cans and bottles from “blue boxes” (aka. “blue bins”) or local parks so as to exchange them for cash at the recycling depot.

     Big Al, Fergie and Bob are three of the men (no women binners appear in the film) who count on the collection of recyclables as a primary source of income. “Can’t live on fresh air and good looks,” quips Fergie. Bob’s opinion is that cans represent the only stable currency. “Business,” he jokes, “is picking up every day.” Even Big Al, whom Bob pronounces “not a true bottle collector,” says he makes about $70 in a day.

     However, of significantly greater importance than money to Big Al, Fergie and Bob, is that their chosen occupation grants them freedom. For Big Al, binning represents freedom from conventional jobs that offer less pay for longer hours. His condensed workday - he starts at 6:30 a.m. and finishes by 11:00 a.m. - complements his preferred leisure activity: riding shopping carts. He takes pride in the fact he achieved 67 km/hr down Mountain Road. He locates freedom in the speed and danger of what he asserts is an “extreme sport.”

     Bob also enjoys the freedom that binning provides. He adamantly believes that nobody should be “prisoners of the economic system.” Having left his spouse and family years ago, Bob lives, to all appearances, happily and singularly self-sufficient in a modest mobile home with a parrot for company. He emphasizes that he is not greedy, but he aims for $20 a day, collecting just enough recyclables to fund his passions: music, poetry, art, and gardening.

     Fergie, meanwhile, finds collecting bottles preferable to a job where he could be fired for failing to show up because he’s “been on a bender with a pretty-looking blonde.” He might very well equate binning with the freedom to indulge in and support his drinking habit. “It’s a daily thing,” he says, downing the dregs of a bottle he’s about to cash in. “You become an alcoholic. There’s a lot worse things you could be in this world,” he adds philosophically. While binning may just barely allow Fergie to subsist (the camera surveys his mattress among the trees as well as a moldy deli sandwich), at the very least, it frees him from staying in homeless shelters. Shelters, he opines, are “not conducive to recovering from anything.” Of the three men’s concepts of freedom, Fergie’s seems the most tenuous. Still, all are united by an alternative attitude toward notions of work and leisure.

     From Big Al’s “how-to” on what to look for in a shopping cart, to Fergie’s rendition of “Tennessee Stud” despite his damaged strumming hand, all the characters in the film demonstrate intelligence, humour, and especially resourcefulness. For example, viewers witness a Thanksgiving dinner which “Max-the-chef” prepares over a makeshift grate using whatever ingredients are close at hand. “Only lazy people starve,” observes one of those gathered for the meal. In another instance, Big Al explains how living in the trees next to a hotel has its advantages in that he can slip in during the morning rush and use the washroom and shower for free. These individuals have little in the way of possessions, responsibilities, pretensions, expectations - or regrets. They seem to have learned the secret of being content.

     Siple’s decision to appear as a character in the film, he tells Rabble.ca, was based on his desire to make a film “with his subjects, not about them.” As he explains to Fergie in Carts of Darkness, he can identify with being the object of stereotyping. People often make assumptions about him as a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, Siple says, just as people often make assumptions about binners. Like other NFB films in the past few years (this ability, Still Longshots, and Acting Blind come to mind), Carts of Darkness treats individuals on the fringes of society with the dignity they deserve as fellow human beings. It also implicitly encourages viewers to break free of their preconceptions about others whose appearance, behaviour, or values are incongruent with their own.

     One important note: although the DVD jacket specifies that “closed captioning can be activated with the DVD player subtitle option,” this viewer tried to switch on closed captioning and subtitles by various methods only to receive a “captioning not available” message.


Julie Chychota works as a computer interpreter for students with hearing loss at the University of Ottawa.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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