Treasure hunting in the trash: Yellowknife salvagers cheer dump documentary

A documentary that celebrates salvaging at the Yellowknife dump is being shown across the continent, and spreading a message about the value of thrift and perils of material consumption.

U.S. filmmaker Amy Elliott spent 6 years making annual trips north for her feature-length documentary

Yellowknife's landfill, referred to by some as 'Ykea,' is at the centre of a documentary by New York filmmaker Amy Elliott. (Laura Wright/CBC)

A documentary that celebrates salvaging at the Yellowknife dump is being shown across the continent.

New York-based filmmaker Amy Elliott always wanted to make a film about a dump, but finding one with open access for salvagers was difficult in the United States.

"Everything's closed because of liability," Elliott said. "This was by far and away the largest dump that was open to the public for salvaging, so it was my only option."

Elliott first traveled to Yellowknife in March 2009 and said that, right away, she knew she'd found a story.

"I mean, the stuff that people were getting out of the dump, the people I met, I knew this was something I wanted to invest in and come back for." 

She spent the next six years making annual journeys north and getting to know a colourful cast of characters.

Salvage, her feature-length documentary, premiered last March at the South by Southwest (SXSW) music and film festival in Austin, Texas. 

It chronicles many great dump finds while documenting a battle with city hall over its move to a new "tiered-cell" system that limits access to the dump. 

Salvage paints a portrait of Yellowknife as a scrappy mining town at the end of the road, where many people (particularly people of an older generation) value the goods that make it this far. 

It also probes a bigger story: what are we doing with all this stuff? 

A dump with its own column

Elliott first learned about the dump after coming across Walt Humphries's column, "Tales from the Dump," in the Yellowknifer newspaper. 

"I think we should be proud of our dump," said Humphries, who ended up with a starring role in the documentary. "The more people see how dumps work, the more likely they are to change their hometown dump, because I believe all dumps should be open to salvage." 

Humphries appears alongside other local salvagers, like Dwayne Wohlgemuth, who comes across a trove of vacuum-packed noodles. 

Walt Humphries writes a column in the Yellowknifer newspaper inspired by the Yellowknife landfill called "Tales from the Dump." Filmmaker Amy Elliott first learned about the dump after coming across one of Humphries's stories. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Velma Sterenberg, a retired geologist, also appears in the film, alongside former N.W.T. commissioner Tony Whitford, who salvages wood to make birdhouses. 

"I grew up like Tony," Sterenberg said, "straightening nails for my dad because those nails had to be used again because we couldn't afford to go to the store for more."

Sterenberg is routinely horrified by perfectly good things she finds people have thrown away.

"The dump is my 'Ykea,'" she said, using the local vernacular — a riff on the furniture chain Ikea. "If I need something and I have a pretty good idea I can find it at the dump, I will go to the dump before I go to the hardware store." 

In the documentary, Sterenberg is shown surrounded by teddy bears she had collected from the dump. 

"I'm humbled and I'm honoured," Sterenberg said of appearing in the film. "If what I have to say makes any kind of a difference, even in a small way, then I can feel better about being a human being on this planet." 

A 2007 photo of the Yellowknife landfill. 'Salvage brings to light the complexities and relevance of waste management in a fun, intimate and honest way,' said Chris Vaughn, who manages Yellowknife's solid waste facility.

The City of Yellowknife is also pleased with the documentary. 

"Salvage brings to light the complexities and relevance of waste management in a fun, intimate and honest way," said Chris Vaughn, who manages the solid waste facility, in an email.

"It showcases what the city has always known about its residents; that we are a group of resourceful and eclectic northerners that believe in the golden rule of making the best, and the most, of what we have."

'Societal shift' needed

Elliott said she began her project with more of a philosophical tilt than an environmental purpose. Her previous documentaries examined "World's Largest" monuments in small towns and competitive jigsaw puzzling in Minnesota (title: Wicker Kittens). 

But that view changed after she spent some time on "the working face" of a real-live dump. 

We really are in an unbelievable apex of consumerism and consumption.- Amy Elliott, filmmaker

"The amount of plastic and the amount of e-waste … so much cheap junk that ended up in the dump that I didn't realize there was so much of," Elliott said. "We really are in an unbelievable apex of consumerism and consumption." 

Salvaging, Elliott thinks, is one way to let people in on the dirty secret of where the garbage goes. Plus, she said, it's fun. 

"It's like a wonderland for kids, and for adults, obviously." 

The documentary is not yet available to stream online, though it should be by spring. 

For now, it's slated for about 10 more film festivals in the next several months.


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