Mai Iskander: GARBAGE DREAMS
LEILA TEACHES A CLASS AT THE RECYCLING SCHOOL IN MOKATTAM
The Dignity of the Nobodies
Review by Chris Knipp
The Oscar-nominated documentary Garbage Dreams is a film that sees global issues at an absolutely grassroots level. It shows how international companies and the desire for modernization lead to the marginalization of the poor and the inconvenience of the general population. But it focuses on Adham, 17, Nabil, 18, and Osama, 16, three Zabbaleen youths, and Leila, a social worker and teacher of the community's new recycling school. The film is "about" the "Zabbaleen," the "poorest of the poor" whose community collected and recycled trash in the city of Cairo for many generations.
Cairo, a city of 18 or 20 million now, nobody knows for sure, never had a system of garbage collection -- but for a hundred years or so it has had the Zabbaleen. Zabāla in Egyptian Arabic means "garbage;" zabbāl is a garbage professional/expert/person. The Zabbaleen are a 60,000-strong community of people who live in a place on the outskirts of the city called Mokattam. They are known to have routinely recycled 80% of the waste they collected, which they got directly from people's houses, gathering it up and sorting it with infinite care in big plastic bags, even the smallest objects, cutting off the tops of cans, shredding up plastics, and feeding the edible waste to a herd of hogs that they had. They could keep pigs because they were Coptic Christians, and so, unlike Muslims, permitted to eat pork. This warm and engaging and saddening documentary tells the story of the Zabbaleen and the terrible luck that has recently befallen them through globalization: multinational companies have been brought in by the Egyptian government to collect the trash, turning the Zabbaleen into marginal scavengers.
Of course the conditions of the Zabbaleen were unhealthy, living among piles of garbage, and they lived in poverty. But as we learn from Mai Iskander's film, they have always taken great pride in their work. And well they might. What they did was good for the environment, provided them with a livelihood, and rid the huge city of mountains of waste. Too bad the explosion of car ownership in Cairo in recent decades has led to smoggy air. But modern trash removal systems, even with curbside recycling, never recycle anything like 80%. Much of what they collect is incinerated, including organic waste, leading to more carbon dioxide in the air and producing miles of landfill.
But this is getting ahead of ourselves. Garbage Dreams is first of all about people, and it focuses on those four inhabitants of Mokattam. Adham is a youth whose father is in jail, leaving him head of the family. His dad is doing time for building an addition on the roof of their house without a permit, so Adham would have an apartment and could get married. But getting married is exactly what Adham doesn't want to do. Nabil, the handsomest of the three, speaks less, but when he does, he always has something to say. He's artistic and paints murals, and raises pigeons on the roof. He's peaceful and sits up there gazing out on the world with the birds perched on his arm. In the course of the documentary he establishes himself as a man in the traditional way, by getting married. Osama is a problem boy, always complaining and making excuses, never sticking to any job but claiming that's because it interests him to try different things. Is he retarded, or cleverly devious? He always has a big grin, and takes care of his younger siblings. He wants to better himself. In the end he goes to work for the foreign garbage collection company and says "50% of them respect me, and I'm working on the other 50%." In two years he says he's "filled out" and become a "lover," and he gets married.
When the disaster of the foreign companies strikes, Leila presides at meetings of the Zabbaleen. They go around to sample groups of people and propose their putting out their trash in separated form, hoping evidently to be appreciated for their help.
In a memorable and for them momentous segment of the film, Adham and Nabil are sent by an organization to Wales to observe modern western refuse collection and recycling. They marvel at the green land, the controlled traffic. They pick up English quickly. They wonder at the lovely equipment the recyclers have. Back home Adham (deftly) works a scissors machine to decapitate cans. Here it happens on an assembly line that does it all touch-free. On the other hand, the boys note that the Welsh garbage people have "organization, but not precision." Their elaborate system is not as comprehensive as the Zabbaleen's; they are missing 30% of what they could recycle. Adham dreams of having his own can recycling factory. When they get back, Adham sits and listens to tapes of their Welsh lady sponsor's favorite song, dreaming of coolness and expanses of green grass.
Nabil notes that, despite their marginalization now, they're also more visible in the world at large to champions of recycling, who see the Zabbaleen (and their counterparts in other poor countries) as heroes of a green future. The impoverished Cairenes in Garbage Dreams are full of life and hope. But they're also angry about the hand that recent events have dealt them. The film, which is beautifully photographed (Mai Iskander has many years of experience as a camera person), is a seamless and intimate of portrait of people whose personal lives mirror public events. Iskander's father was born and raised in Egypt, and she visited Cairo often growing up and knew Mokattam from being taken to a wedding there as a teenager.
Showing at the IFC Center in New York in January 6-12 2010, Garage Dreams has won a dozen festival awards and is being sponsored for home hosted DVD showings. It was screened at the Saul Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley by the Gaia (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives) group, whose members also showed a new short film opposing "Cap and Trade," and explained that there are people similar to the Zabbaleen in other countries, similarly displaced by "modern" garbage collectors who rely on incinerators and landfill instead of the more intensive and environmentally sound recycling of traditional, indigenous groups.
(The on-screen titles and names all appear first in Arabic, in beautiful calligraphy. The film's title in Arabic is Ahlām az-zabbālīn, "Dreams of the Zabbaleen." My subtitle refers to Fernando E. Solanas' 2005 documentary about the struggle of the poor and dispossessed of Argentina.)
The film's own official website lists many articles and reviews. A Facebook page lists upcoming local screenings.