Trashtastic Tuesday with Mai Iskander


Trashtastic Tuesdays return to today after a bit of a hiatus. Filmmaker Mai Iskander was kind enough to answer our questions about her powerful film, Garbage Dreams. Those of you in LA, take note,  the film is playing at the Arclight from August 14-20th with Iskander in attendance the first three nights.

Mai Iskander

Mai Iskander photo via

everydaytrash: How long did this project take you and how did you identify your main subjects?

Iskander: Garbage Dreams is a labor of love that took four years to make. By 2005, I had been working in the film business as a cinematographer for five years and decided to take the winter off and spend it in Cairo. I returned to the garbage village and started volunteering at the local neighborhood school, The Recycling School. The teachers and students really impressed me. Despite their difficult and impoverished life, they were extremely proud in their way of life and their history – and they should be.

The Zaballeen have created the world’s most effective resource recovery system, recycling 80 percent of everything they collect. They are actually saving our Earth. From out of the trash, they lifted themselves out of poverty and have a solution to the world’s most pressing crisis.

Unfortunately, in 2003, never having recognized these strikingly high recycling rates and following globalization trends, Cairo decided to hire three foreign waste companies to clean up its overpopulated mega-city of 18 million people. This Zaballeen community of 60,000 was slowly losing its livelihood.

Of course, as a filmmaker, I quickly saw potential for a story, but it was the teenagers who really drew me in. In addition to the fact that their way of life and community was in jeopardy, these kids were also facing typical teenage concerns: fashion, pop music and their workout routine, and their aspirations to be the coolest and most popular.

One day, I decided to bring my camera and film them just for fun. Initially, I was just going to edit a little video for them as a present. One of the boys who later became a major subject in my film, Osama, started bragging to his friends that an “international film crew” (in actuality, it was just myself and my camera) was making a movie on him in order to document his incredibly charismatic self. Neighbors and friends immediately started calling him “Tommy Cruise.”

Osama, photo via

Osama, photo via

Now that I had “Tommy Cruise” in the movie, I just had to turn this film into a feature. Over four years, I was able to capture the nuances of these teenagers’ lives: their enthusiasm for any new adventure, their longing to find love and acceptance, their desire to make a mark in the world, and their desire to hold onto and to develop their trade.

I spent about seven months filming in Cairo and about 2 weeks in Wales – over the course of four years.  I started off filming six boys and four teachers, but eventually narrowed it down to three boys and one teacher.  I was immediately drawn to Osama because he was so open and so charismatic.  Adham was quite cocky which I thought most people would not expect from a boy who grew up in a garbage village.  Nabil was one of the boys in the neighborhood affected by the arrival of the multinational waste companies.  Laila was the most articulate most proactive of all the teachers and one of the main leaders in the community.

I wanted each character to represent different aspects of the Zaballeen community, but the one thing that they all had in common was that they were big dreamers.  Adham dreams of changing the world, Osama dreams of respect,  Nabil dreams of prosperity and building a family, and Laila dreams of perservering.

everydaytrash: Has much changed since the point where we leave Laila and the boys at the end of the film?

Iskander: Yes, a huge catastrophe occurred three months ago when Egypt slaughtered all the pigs which the Zaballeen breed on the organic part of the waste.  This has meant that thousands of families have had their income slashed in half. This has forced many Zaballeen to search for alternative livelihoods.

everydaytrash: Where does the estimate that the Zabaleen recycle 80% of Cairo’s trash come from?

Iskander: Studies around the waste composition of waste in Cairo indicate that more than 50% is organic – i.e. food.  The Zaballeen fed their pigs on the food which is thrown out in the city’s trash.  The remaining 45 % is non organic, i.e. paper, cardboard, plastic, metals, cans, aluminum, rags, etc.  These are recovered very efficiently because they constitute a major source of income for the Zaballeen.  However, because residents throw them out in the same can as the organic, a portion is soiled and not fit for recycling.  This is called residual waste and the Zaballeen truck it to the main city dump.  This residual is estimated at about 10% of the 45%.  All this is based on studies and quantitative surveys the Zaballeen have undertaken for many years.

everydaytrash: Who buys the shredded plastic and crushed cans recycled by the Zaballeen?

Iskander: Other Zaballeen recyclers who process it, i.e. wash it, dry it, bag it and sometimes remanufacture it.  Otherwise they sell it to large factories in Egypt’s induatrial towns, at 50 kilometers from their neighborhoods.

everydaytrash: Are there job training and education efforts being carried out to help this community find alternative sources of income?

The Recycling School, photo via

The Recycling School, photo via

Iskander: Some non- governmental organization and charity groups have been attempted to offer job training and other educational efforts but they have not been effective – poor trainers, poor curriculum and poor equipment.  And the training never lead to jobs which pay well.  The best training has been “retraining” – teaching the Zaballeen how to upgrade their recycling trade and build their business acumen.  Educational campaigns, such as the ones led by The Recycling School portrayed in the film, play a key part in this.  Currently one hundred boys who would otherwise not be able to go to school learn and play in a safe environment.  The Recycling School is currently trying to raise $300,000 to go towards the purchase of land and the construct of a new facility.  This would allow The Recycling School to double its enrollment and expand its curriculum to include girls.  To learn more how to help and to make a tax-deductible donation, go to to the “How to Help” section.

everydaytrash: Thank you!

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10 Responses to “Trashtastic Tuesday with Mai Iskander”

  1. lynn wilson Says:

    Hi maryanne. I have been away too long; have visited your site every day and want to come back to see old friends. I would love to see Wegdan (Danni) if she is still up to it, as I had a Bint Bilal ex Moulid el nabawi who was the most beautiful mare until Ferroussia killled her by letting her run out of her box, and then (in true Ferrosia fashion) chased her out into traffic on sharia ghezira where she was hit by a bus and the local policekman refused to put her out of her misery because he had to account for the bullet (!!!). Despite the fact I had paid a vast amount of bribery to get her into Ferrosia, because I lived opposite, they denied she had ever been boarded there. She did not exist. a dead parrot. A khawagia has no challenges it seems. I hope that things have changed for the equine fraternity since I lived there. Please reply because I would love to get back to the Abu Sir community for a visit.

  2. Cairo without pigs « everydaytrash Says:

    […] Mai Iskander emailed me after the piece ran to remind me that her documentary Garbage Dreams about three young […]

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  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 Association […]

  5. Garbage Dreams update from Cairo « everydaytrash Says:

    […] Darabi This just in! An exclusive from Cairo where Garbage Dreams filmmaker Mai Iskander arranged for our friend and journalist Beige Luciano-Adams to attend a screening of the film and […]

  6. Counterbalance « everydaytrash Says:

    […] made this short educational piece on trash pickers in India. Much like the dilemma at the center of Mai Iskander‘s film Garbage Dreams, trash pickers in India are seeing their livelihoods threatened as the […]

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