April 12, 2010 in Film Review
I hope all of you had a great weekend! In this post, I will be reviewing the independent film Garbage Dreams (2009). How this film relates undeniably to the theme of my blog – healthy living with a cosmopolitan twist – should be abundantly clear as you read through this review …
Last Thursday (April 8, 2010), the Coptic Youth Fellowship (CYF) student group at the University of Illinois at Chicago organized a screening of the documentary film Garbage Dreams. The students involved in CYF took interest in the film because it deals with a substantial local community of Cairo’s Coptic Christians, an underrepresented Egyptian minority with a long history of persecution. However, the film is not a religious one; rather, its primary goal is to draw attention to a longstanding environmental push by one of the poorest communities in Cairo, called the Zaballeen (translated literally as “garbage people” in Arabic), in the Mokatam area – who are almost exclusively Copts.
“A winner at the Al Gore Reel Film Festival, and with sixteen additional awards including the IDA (International Documentary Association) Humanitas Award, Garbage Dreams connects the viewer to the life and work of the zaballeen, who have consistently recycled 80% of all the refuse produced by the largest city in all of Africa and the Middle East” (UIC Facebook event). The zaballeen perform this service at no cost to the city, as their sole source of revenue is obtained by selling raw materials extracted from recycled trash to plants and manufacturers in Europe.
“Cairo’s 60,000 garbage collectors are now being faced with the incredible choice either of joining or attempting to compete with hi-tech European contractors who are only required to meet a 20% recycling rate. There is much that can be learned from this struggle in one of the world’s most crowded cities. After all, at its core, it is a struggle for the wellbeing of our crowded planet” (UIC Facebook event).
Produced and directed by Mai Iskander, an Egyptian-American filmmaker living in New York, the film peers into the lives of three young men from this community. In the shorter 53-minute version (the one we watched), we see more of Osama (16 y o) and Adham (17) than we do of Nabil (18). The documentary starts with eye-catching scenes from the daily lives of the zaballeen, who spend their days picking up and sorting through garbage with bare hands, cutting aluminum lids from soda cans with a rudimentary knife, and crunching plastic bottles for recycling purposes. The film is both eye-opening and heart-wrenching. Someone growing up in American suburbs would probably be shocked that these filthy, garbage-piled, unsanitary alleys and streets are living quarters for anyone! The first thought that comes to mind even in the beginning of the film (and lingers throughout) is that these are probably the worst living conditions possible. But then, the film shows that life can get worse for these people, as this – their only source of income – is now under threat. Realizing that education is the only answer to this situation, social worker Laila opens The Recycling School to teach the zaballeen how to modernize their trade, in an effort to save their livelihood.
Some of the saddest scenes in the film are when Nabil and Adham receive a scholarship to visit Wales to learn about modern and more efficient ways of collecting trash and recycling. Even though he is impressed with the lush vegetation and cleanliness of Wales, Adham is surprised when he visits a recycling factory and sees how much recyclable material goes to waste and is dumped in a hole in the ground. He astutely observes, “here, they have technology, but no precision.” However, they do learn about the concept of “source separation” – having the residents separate the perishable trash from the recyclable trash before pickup for easier sorting at the factory. When they return to Egypt, they try to implement this modernized method with no success (the residents agree with the idea, but the outsourced foreign companies – who have no incentive to recycle efficiently – end up mixing together the separate piles, thereby undoing all progress). Though they see no positive change, the teenagers struggle to keep alive their dreams of owning a “can-cutting factory” (Adham) and of working for a respectable company (Osama). Though disheartened at times, they somehow manage to maintain a fairly optimistic attitude (Osama starts going to church, and participating as an altar boy, in order to turn his life around, and Adham fights hard to keep his job).
I came out of the film with a deep realization: the simpler and less “modernized” conditions surrounding the community of zaballeen forces them to value deeply the resources that they have. The incentive structure leads to the best overall outcome. There are no corporations or large government agencies veiling the problems from the people that it might directly affect. Rather, we have in Garbage Dreams a city faced with massive amounts of waste produced by its eighteen million inhabitants, and we have sixty thousand people whose livelihood literally depends on scavenging through that garbage for redeemable (recyclable) material they can sell. They actually have a strong direct incentive to recycle, something we do not have here. Where resources are plentiful is where a culture of waste is most likely to develop.
Of course, I am hoping that there is way to provide these ambitious recyclers with modern equipment and other resources (like gloves and aprons to help with sanitation, as well as wash stations, etc.), but I would not change their incentive structure in any way whatsoever – rather, I would continue to encourage their entrepreneurial and ambitious spirit. There are several ways to support this community. One way is to watch the film and spread the word about it. This Garbage Dreams widget allows you to watch a clip from the film,to schedule a screening of the film in your community, to participate in pro-recycling activism in the United States (where the recycling rate is in the range of 30-40% in contrast with the 80% rate of the zaballeen), and to spread the word about the film through the “share” button. Additionally, if you are interested in helping the zaballeen directly, the “how to help” tab at the top of the Garbage Dreams website is a good starting place. Finally, here is the Facebook group for the recycling school that is shown in the film.
Overall, I found the film to be deeply moving and well done. Mai Iskander manages to tackle these very serious issues with an unmistakable lightheartedness, largely owing to the charm of the three main characters. Adham, Osama, and Nabil are truly authentic and delightful young men. There were quite a few humorous “coming-of-age” moments and comic cultural references. I couldn’t help but wonder how difficult it must have been to get these guys to open up on camera about their sometimes very personal struggles. Both Adham and Osama seemed to wrestle with self-esteem issues – which sadly are often triggered by the less-than-sympathetic treatment of fellow Egyptians from higher social classes…
The camera work and the directing was done in a true-to-life documentary style, and the background music ranged from beautiful traditional Middle Eastern strains, to familiar modern, popular Egyptian music. The music fit the scenes perfectly and colored them with genuine sentiment and familiar hues of old and modern Egyptian folklore.
Here is what some others have had to say about the film:
In the words of former Vice President Al Gore, “Garbage Dreams is a moving story of young men searching for ways to eke out a living for their families and facing tough choices as they try to do the right thing for the planet. 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. Ultimately, Garbage Dreams makes a compelling case that modernization does not always equal progress.”
In an interview with Thomas White of the International Documentary Association, Mai Iskander shares why she was inspired to make this documentary. If you haven’t already, go ahead and watch the trailer. The film is also airing on PBS on April 27, 2010 at 10 PM Central Time (check on pbs.org to find out when it’s showing in your city). Make sure you catch it!
For those of you who have seen the film, what did you think of it? Has anyone ever visited the Zaballeen District in Cairo before? What kind of feelings did it evoke?