A neighborhood filled with filthy garbage isn’t where most people picture their dream home — but take that garbage away, and the garbage pickers no longer have a livelihood. That painful problem is what you see in Garbage Dreams
, a documentary that follows the lives of three teenage Zaballeen (literal translation: garbage people), who make their living by picking up Cairo’s trash.
Produced and directed by Egyptian-American filmmaker Mai Iskander, Garbage Dreams shows how the Zaballeen daily collect 6,000 tons of Cairo’s garbage — and eke together an existence by recycling an impressive 80 percent of it. Making a living out of garbage is hard, dangerous and dirty work — the Zaballeen live in trash-filled neighborhoods and need to get regular tetanus shots — yet when multinational garbage disposal companies are brought in to modernize Cairo’s waste disposal system in 2003, the Zaballeen are suddenly unable to cobble together a living.
The film follows the Zaballeen as a group trying to organize, educating the young about the recycling business at a project called The Recycling School, and strategizing to implement a source-separation program at nearby neighborhoods. The film also follows the three teens individually — each tasked with creating a livelihood as new adults in a world that’s quickly changing.
While Garbage Dreams certainly shows both the painful economic plight as well as the courageous humanity of the Zaballeen, the film leaves a lot of questions unanswered. It’s unclear, for example, why the Zaballeen activists don’t seem to engage more at the government policy level — a task that seems necessary to create large-scale change that might improve their lot.
An attempt to encourage people to separate out food waste from other trash to simplify the Zaballeen’s work, for example, becomes not a push for a city-supported recycling program, but a painstaking task of activists going door to door, trying to convince each resident to sort her trash. We see the Zaballeen argue amongst themselves about the superiority of their own work (the foreign companies only recycle 20 percent of their trash, and they don’t pick up trash in front of each resident’s door as the Zaballeen do) — but we don’t see them take these arguments to decisionmakers and policy makers that are paying the foreign companies.
Perhaps this disconnect points to the Zaballeen’s sense of disenfranchisement by, and distrust of, their government. After all, the foreign companies were brought in without the Zaballeens ever being notified or warned of the pending changes — or given a chance to modernize their work. Garbage Dreams‘ task in part seems to be to give a voice to people who’ve come to believe they don’t have one.
will be screened next at the 2009 Rhode Island International Film Festival in early August. Visit the film’s website
to find out about future screenings near you.
Photo: Courtesy of garbagedreams.com