Trash Talk: Garbage Dreams

A film about the ‘garbage people’ of Cairo’s confrontation with globalization one of the highlights of EcoCinema Festival.

Garbage Dreams movie 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Garbage Dreams movie 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
You’d have to be living in a cave or a padded cell for the last decade or so not to be aware of the mounting quantities of garbage we are producing, and the need for recycling. Whether we, as individuals or official bodies, do anything about it is another matter. But for some, recycling refuse is – literally – a matter of survival.
Garbage Dreams is a feature length documentary, produced and directed by Mai Iskander. It follows three teenage boys who were born into the trash trade and are growing up in the world's largest garbage village, on the outskirts of Cairo. It is the home to 60,000 zaballeen, or “garbage people”. Unaware of any modern green initiatives the zaballeen, nevertheless, survive by recycling 80 percent of the garbage they collect. When their community is suddenly faced with the globalization of its trade, as multinational waste-removal corporations appear in Cairo, each of the teenage boys is forced to make choices that will impact his future and the survival of his community.
The documentary premiered last year, at the SXSW Film Festival, in Austin, Texas, and won the 2009 Al Gore Reel Current Award. It has now come here and will be screened at cinematheques and other venues up and down the country over the next couple of weeks, as part of this year’s EcoCinema Festival, starting with Rosh Pina (November 1, 8:30 p.m.) followed by Tel Aviv (November 3, 7 p.m.), Haifa (November 4, 9 p.m.), Ramat Hanegev (November 6, 5:30 p.m.), and solar-powered screenings in Dimona (November 8, 2 p.m.) and in Eilat (November 13, 7 p.m.). There was also a well-received screening at the Jerusalem Cinematheque this Wednesday.
Garbage Dreams has obviously struck a chord with audiences and green industry captains alike. To date, the film has received 25 festival awards and it has won praise from international organizations that work in waste management, sustainability and recycling. It was also nominated for Best Documentary by the Director’s Guild of America.
Iskander came across the zaballeen phenomenon by chance. Growing up in the States as an Egyptian- American she often visited her extended family in Egypt. When she was a young teenager, friends of her family took her to the garbage village on the outskirts of Cairo, to attend a local wedding. The youngster was almost overwhelmed by the sight and smells of the microcosm of refuse and says she gained an impression of “a world folded onto itself, an impenetrable labyrinth of narrow roadways camouflaged by trash. I remember at the time feeling that this place was extraordinary, exotic and overwhelming. Everything seemed strange and everyone seemed like a stranger. But what was most unexpected was how warm and inviting everyone was.” The seed for Garbage Dreams was sown then and there.
In 2005, Iskander returned to the garbage village and started volunteering at the local neighborhood school, The Recycling School, that had been established there. “The teachers and students really impressed me,” Iskander continues.” Despite their difficult and impoverished life, they were extremely proud in their way of life and their history – and they should be.”
Considering the logistics, and the fact that Iskander was – Egyptian roots notwithstanding – an outsider, making Garbage Dreams was no easy task and took the director four years to complete. “One of the greatest obstacles in making Garbage Dreams was getting people used to the camera,” she explains. “I spent many hours filming the boys – over 250 hours of footage – documenting all the nuances of their lives. At the beginning, they did not quite understand what exactly I was filming.”
THEN ISKANDER opted for the cooperative, hands-on approach and reaped some unexpected rewards. “I decided to give the boys at the recycling school a video camera so they could better understand the filmmaking process. I was hoping that this would also provide the boys with a sense of ownership so that, in some way, they were the authors of their own stories. They listened intently to my instructions, making sure they understood every aspect of the camera. I was blown away by their photographic ability and the intimacy of their footage. I included much more of their footage than I had originally planned. Four minutes of Garbage Dreams was shot by the kids themselves.”
While, naturally, being intent on conveying a green message to the Western world in the clearest possible manner Iskander says she did not set out to shock people into action. “That was never my intention. My intention was to depict the garbage village and the lives of the zaballeen as accurately as possible.
Still, considering the subject matter, there may have been some footage which the director might have considered somewhat unpalatable for those of a more delicate disposition. Apparently not. “There was not anything that was too shocking for the Western audiences that I took out, although there were a lot of things that needed to be added in order to clarify things for Western audiences, such as why it is so important for young men to buy an apartment for marriage.”
With all those hours of film, Iskander says that some footage was excluded simply on contextual grounds, but she still found a way to offer the public a more comprehensive package. “There are some great scenes that did not make the final cut, as I hoped they would, because they did not fit within the story arc. These deleted scenes, as well as an epilogue, have been added as part of the DVD extras.
At the end of the day, Iskander hopes the documentary will make a difference. “I hope Garbage Dreams will encourage people to reexamine the true value of what they throw away each day and the real cost of throwing out the expertise of zaballeen. The zaballeen would work long into the night to clean up after us, the modern, industrialized world. Beyond that, by creating the world’s most effective resource recovery system they are actually saving our earth. I also hope that everyone who sees Garbage Dreams can see a little bit of themselves in the three teenagers of the film.”
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