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Review: Garbage Dreams

garbagedreams_largearticlephoto.jpgBy Carissa Bluestone

In the first few minutes of Garbage Dreams, after being informed that Cairo has no citywide waste-removal system, we get an aerial view of Mokattam, the city’s largest “garbage village.” Any surface not draped with hanging laundry is piled high with the waste collected by 60,000 Zaballeen, Cairo’s informal sanitation workers.

“Recycling village” is more accurate: In ad hoc workshops cloth is ground down to pulp and plastic is shredded into confetti. This raw material is then brokered through middlemen to foreign markets that don't have strict standards on reusing low-grade materials.

The film follows three boys (Adham, 17, Nabil, 18, and Osama, 16), and Laila, a social worker and teacher at the village’s Recycling School. We meet the Zaballeen in the midst of crisis: Cairo’s decision a few years ago to outsource waste management to contractors from Italy and Spain has seriously threatened the Zaballeen’s livelihood. At one point, Nabil estimates that the foreign companies have reduced his haul by 75 percent.

Garbage Dreams has been getting a lot of attention since its March premiere at South by Southwest -- in April, director Mai Iskander accepted the 2009 REEL Current Award at the Nashville Film Festival from none other than Al Gore. Iskander certainly deserves praise for giving a voice to a community that is at once a vital part of a megacity’s ecology and a marginalized target of scorn, but it’s her first feature, and not without its weaknesses. The focus on the boys’ coming-of-age woes, though compelling, means there isn’t a lot of space for data; at times the grousing about the “foreign companies” seems a bit vague and it's difficult to understand just how the whole system works. The government’s unwillingness to incorporate the Zaballeen into their plan is no secret (read about the controversy here, here and here), and the subsequent failures of their short-sighted approach have been similarly well documented, but without the perspective of the decision-makers or of third parties, we're missing an analysis of whether a program that relied solely on retraining the Zaballeen would actually solve Cairo’s growing garbage problem. Lastly, although it’s clear the Zaballeen feel disrespected by the government and by Cairo society, we don’t get the full picture of the institutionalized racism that these mainly Coptic Christian people face. (A point that has much recent significance: In the wake of the swine flu panic, the Egyptian government ordered the culling of all pigs in Cairo — most of which belonged to the Zaballeen and were the key mechanism in disposing of the organic waste collected.)

What Garbage Dreams does really well, however, is showcase the enthusiasm and ingenuity of the Zaballeen, who have counterparts in almost every megacity. The younger generation is resentful of the government’s dismissal of their recycling expertise (the film estimates that the Zaballeen recycle 80 percent of garbage collected, whereas the multinational companies recycle a paltry 20 percent). They are clear-eyed about the need to modernize their techniques in order to remain part of the solution. Mokattam’s Recycling School, a product of UNESCO funding and Proctor & Gamble-sponsored microloans, not only teaches safe recycling practices, but also literacy and the skills necessary to create and grow businesses: how to read maps, use computers, and understand contracts. The school is currently raising funds to secure a permanent space and expand the campus in order to include the education of girls. In one of the film’s best segments, Nabil and Adham travel to Swansea, Wales on a sponsored program to glean lessons from a modern recycling system. The trip yields a revelation — source separation — which Adham explains at a community meeting. It is quickly adopted as a first step towards modernization, and the group goes door to door persuading their clients to presort organic and nonorganic waste.

The film works equally well as an expose on the “squalor” of a garbage village and an unsentimental slice of Global South life, but the larger significance of Garbage Dreams is the missed opportunities inherent in globalizing waste management. Cairo has been underserved by its multinational contractors — the only one that’s had a reasonably smooth run is an Italian company that has tried to incorporate the existing Zaballeen systems. In the meantime, most of the Zaballeen are barely scraping by -- having been unable to regain the licenses and prized routes they used to work; many resort to scavenging, which is technically illegal. (In this way, the film tangentially brings up the question: Who owns our garbage? The Zaballeen, with their decades years of garbage collection traditions, and life among discarded shampoo bottles and shredded plastic bags can certainly assert figurative ownership of Cairo’s waste; however, when the multinationals show up that ownership is perfunctorily transferred.)

If, when creating its waste-removal system, the city had tapped the immense community capital on its outskirts, where would Cairo be right now? How much more efficient would the city be at trash removal, and how much more optimistic would the Zaballeen be regarding their community’s place in the 21st century?

Carissa Bluestone is a freelance editor based in Seattle. She was a contributor to Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century.

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I agree, "Garbage Dreams" is a wonderful film. And it is to its merit that this is not a film about the pros and cons of a globalized waste disposal system or the extremely delicate and complicated socio-religious life of Egypt. This is not a Frontline segment or a news story. Instead, the filmmaker chose to focus on the film's charming characters. More data would have diluted what makes this film so powerful - the personal stories.

We learn about the Zaballeen through the eyes of three young teenagers who have been born into this life and know little else. The film is told through the voices of the characters - there is no narration and no lazy text cards. The boys commitment to recycling is inspiring and the manner in which global capitalism is destroying their traditional way of life is stark and disturbing. The film makers have brought the primary conflict of our age – between modernity and tradition – to the screen in a powerful and personal manner.

I hope that "Garbage Dreams" is widely viewed. We will only begin to understand and deal with the Arab world when we come to see Arabs as human beings and not stereotypes and news stories.

No wonder Al Gore chose "Garbage Dreams" for his Reel Current Award. Al Gore says "Mai Iskander guides us into a 'garbage village,' a place so different from our own, and yet the choices they face there are so hauntingly familiar." It's true I connected so much to the struggles of the boys in the film.

This film is profoundly inspiring. My favorite film at SIFF! Keep making films Mai Iskander!

Posted by: Anita Shaw on 11 Jun 09





Posted by: Cynthia in Seattle on 11 Jun 09

Thanks for your insightful review. I was trying to find some more info on this film.

My friends saw Garbage Dreams the other nite at SIFF. They enjoyed it very much and had lots of great things to say about it. I am sorry I missed it. Does any know where I can buy a DVD?

Posted by: SusanA on 12 Jun 09

When I heard that Garbage Dreams, a film about the Zabbaleen was playing at SIFF, I made sure to rearrange my schedule to go see it.

I am Coptic Christian born and raised in Egypt. I invited an Egyptian friend who is Muslim to join. Knowing a bit about the history of the Zabbaleen, my friend was nervous that this would be a movie about "how badly the Copts are treated in Egypt."

It's true that Coptic Christian are a minority in Egypt and like ever where else in the world, minorities suffer from some sort of discrimination.

But what better way to address prejudice against the Copts than to humanize them? The film does a great job of this. The kids in the film were amazing and heart-warming. My friend was also enjoyed the film very much.

In Egypt, the Zabbaleen are looked down upon. I think anyone who sees this film will truly change people's perception of the Zabbaleen.

Well-done. Mabruk.

Posted by: Karim Schenouda on 13 Jun 09

This is a wonderful film. I did link this post on a website that focuses on African environmental issues.

What I did find interesting is that it is easy to get lost upon the other side of the story, which talks about waste collection in Cairo and some of the sociopolitical issues that may hinder some of the progress made.

I think a follow up post on views from both sides of this argument would be useful.

Posted by: Brian Oduor on 16 Jun 09


Check out the full length, theatrical version on the Home DVD, plus EXTRAS like:

Deleted scenes
Updates on the Zaballeen boys
A short film about how The Recycling School works!

A portion of the proceeds go to The Recycling School in Egypt!

Posted by: Jon Allen on 16 Jun 10

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