Go see Garbage Dreams


CORRECTION: In the original post, I incorrectly assumed the Laila in the film was Laila Iskandar Kamel, the award-winning advocate, because I had heard about this famous Laila who worked with the Zabaleen. As it turns out, there are two Laila’s dedicated to this valient cause. This Leila apologizes for the error.

It’s been a trash-packed weekend, kids. After an amazing afternoon at the University of Trash on Saturday, I headed down to the IFC Center today for a noon screening of Garbage Dreams, Egyptian filmmaker Mai Iskander‘s documentary about three young men growing up Zabaleen in Cairo.  New Yorkers, take note, it’s playing through Thursday as part of DocuWeeks 2009. And if you’re in LA, there’s a docuequivalent.  Here’s the trailer for those who missed it the first time we posted it.

The story follows teenagers Adham, Nabil and Osama as well as  Laila, a social worker who runs The Recycling School, a place where young community members learn about everything from safe recycling practices to how to negotiate a fair contract with local residents to collect their trash. I won’t give away the whole plot, but a lot of the conflict centers around the fact that after 100 years of depending on the Zabaleen, the city of Cairo signs contracts with foreign waste hauling companies who threaten the trash pickers’ way of life. It’s an emotionally pulling conflict. My natural instinct is to root for the Zabaleen to win out and remain the city’s trash collection system, but it’s hard to feel good about all that comes along with that profession…life in a garbage slum, generation after generation working harder for less money, dangerous contact with sharp and toxic materials…

You never hear from the Egyptian government in this film. Or from the foreign waste companies. And I was never quite sure who was buying the plastic and metal recycled by the Zabaleen. The film left me curious about many things—not the least of which is the source of the often repeated stat that Cairo recycles 80% of its waste thanks to the Zabaleen. After watching the film, I believe it, but would like to know how it was calculated. Overall, though, the film accomplishes its main objective: to put a human face on a group of invisible people. Check it out and let me know what you think.

P.S. My favorite part is when two of the boys visit Wales to observe recycling in a developed country as part of some government program or something and one says to the other: “Dude, did you see that? That car just slowed down to let someone cross the street!” Spoken like a true Caireen.

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8 Responses to “Go see Garbage Dreams”

  1. dumpstertaoist Says:

    Really REALLY looking forward to seeing this film. I have been interested in the Zabbaleen since reading about them in an article in National Geographic sometime in the 1980’s . I guess the film ends before the recent slaughtering of the Zabbaleen’s pigs, or does it? That move struck me as total genocide, based on religious differences (Muslim vs Coptic Christian). Do you think it’s fair to say that, based on what you saw in the doc, Leila? Maybe it was just good old fashioned capitalism on behalf of waste companies…

  2. Leila Darabi Says:

    The Swine Flu epidemic/pig slaughter happened after the doc was made. As a garbage slum priest told the NYT at the time:

    “The bottom line is pigs are not welcome in Egypt.”

    At the time, the Garbage Dreams people sent me a note to make sure I’d seen the piece in the Times and added “The article highlights the Egyptian’s authorities’ seemingly over reactive response as yet another threat to the survival of the 60,000 Zaballeen.”

    I don’t know if Capitalism or prejudice played a larger part in killing the pigs. The take away seems to be that both are endangering the Zabballeen and their way of life and that more needs to be done to help that community transition into the modern world. A steep, steep uphill battle, but I am inspired by The Recycling School and the Rags to Rugs project. Laila Iskandar Kamel is a model of home-grown solutions. The best development comes from within.

  3. Leila Darabi Says:

    PS Would love to know what you think after you see it, DT!

  4. Million dollar trashies « everydaytrash Says:

    […] following a screening of the documentary Garbage Dreams (which we’ve touted here on more than one occasion) at the International Sustainability Conference in Cairo. The Spirit of Youth […]

  5. Zabaeleen, the movie « everydaytrash Says:

    […] review of the documentary Garbage […]

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