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.