First-time filmmaker David Sampliner had a great idea for his documentary “Dirty Work,” and he executes it admirably, if modestly. What about the yucky jobs, the ones no one would want? Who does them? Do they enjoy them? Is so, WHY?!
And so we meet three men with jobs most people wouldn’t do no matter how much you paid them — bull semen collector, septic tank pumper and mortuary restorative artist — and we learn what makes a person choose such a distasteful occupation.
Dr. Russ Page, the semen specialist, grew up around animals and always had a fascination with their reproduction. Now well-educated and articulate, he sees his job as interesting and challenging, not disgusting.
Then there’s Bernard Holston, the embalmer who speaks at length on the illusion of funerals and the tricks he uses to make the corpses appear “lifelike,” the way mourners want to see them.
Finally, we meet Darrell Allen, half-owner of Darrell & Martha Allen Septic Tank Cleaning in rural Georgia. (“You dump we pump” and “We want your stinkin’ business” are among their advertising slogans.) Darrell is one of the more amusing documentary characters in recent memory, possessing literally the thickest Southern accent I have ever heard. (Some of his dialogue is even subtitled, and with good reason.)
He loves his job, and admits he probably couldn’t get a classier one, since he doesn’t read or spell very well. (He mentions that he entered school at age 5 and graduated from sixth grade 12 years later.) Pumping people’s septic tanks makes him privy to all manner of secrets. After AIDS became known in the mid-’80s, he saw a dramatic rise in the number of condoms that turned up (he pronounces it “cun-dums”). He knew one woman who took diet pills, pills that he found, complete and undigested, in her septic tank, apparently not having done her much good.
Though each of the vocations is gross, the profiles of the three men help us appreciate what might draw a person to them. Unpleasant or not, we can see interesting aspects — not enough to make us change our career plans, probably, but enough to make us realize there’s more to it than we’d thought.
Even at a scant 58 minutes, the film feels a bit padded, as once the initial novelty of filthy jobs and the men who love them has worn off, there’s not much else to say, other than, “Ewww.” Trim off 10 minutes, put some commercials in it, and you’d have a fine hour of television on The Learning Channel. Maybe even the pilot for a series. I know I’d watch.
B- (58 min.; )