Recycling the War on Terror in "Scrapper"

Have you ever hankered to go dumpster-diving on a military firing range? If so, you’ll get a much needed reality check from Scrapper (screening at 2:45 pm on Wednesday October 19th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas), director Stephen Wassmann’s salute to a hardy group of Southern California recyclers.

Known as ‘scrappers’, these rugged individualists don’t waste their time crushing soda cans. Instead, they make their living in and around the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range, a massive (465,000 acre) military reserve in California’s Colorado Desert where the Navy and Marine Corps test ordnance on a daily basis. The Range has been a testing ground since World War II: this was the place the Enola Gay took its practice runs before dropping Little Boy on Hiroshima.

Living on the periphery of the Range, scrappers take their lives in their hands every time they go to work. Picking their way across a desert landscape littered with unexploded bombs, mines, missiles and cluster munitions, they collect the detritus of the Global War on Terror. Needless to say, the work—which the U.S. government considers thievery—is extremely dangerous.

Once collected, the scrap is then sold to dealers in nearby Niland, one of the poorest communities in California, and a town where the official unemployment rate hovers around 25% (unofficially, it’s much higher). A drug smuggling and immigration crossroads on the eastern shore of the polluted Salton Sea, Niland relies on jobs at Calipatria State Prison, a ‘correctional facility’ in a neighboring burg.

Thanks in part to the hollowing out of America’s industrial base, Niland residents have few employment alternatives beyond those offered by the nation’s military and prison-industrial complexes. Meanwhile, the federal government annually spends many millions of dollars dropping massive quantities of high explosives in the middle of a desert. This is the place where the guns versus butter argument reaches its logical conclusion—with guns, of course, winning hands down.

If you’re still not convinced that the profit motive is the single biggest threat to life on Planet Earth, consider Patagonia Rising (screening at the Shattuck Thursday, October 20th at 2:45 pm). Examining impending hydroelectric projects that will devastate the pristine rivers of southern Chile, the film suggests that, if not for human greed, the proposed dams would be unnecessary.

Chile’s water was privatized during the Pinochet era, and the Spanish-based multinational that now owns 80% of it hopes to construct five dams on Patagonia’s Baker and Pascua Rivers in order to supply the urbanized north with electricity. The film interviews activists and scientists who posit that the country’s energy needs could be met by a commitment to sustainable solar- and wind-generated power. The decision is now in the hands of Chile’s recently and narrowly elected billionaire President, Sebastián Piñera, so the outlook isn’t promising.

Both films are worth your while, but if you’ve only got one free afternoon this week, Scrapper gets the nod. Though a visually stunning examination of an issue of considerable import, Patagonia Rising’s catalog of looming environmental horrors is a familiar one for documentary mavens. Familiar is the last word you’d associate with the crystal meth-fueled desert dwellers of the Chocolate Mountains.

John Seal writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...