Elevate Difference

Garbage Dreams: Raised in the Trash Trade

At seventy-nine minutes long, Garbage Dreams is New York-based producer, director, and cinematographer Mai Iskander’s directorial debut. Before viewing the film I had never heard of the Zaballeen nor did I know that Cairo, one of the world’s most historic cities, once at the very pinnacle of human history, has no municipal waste disposal system to handle the trash of its eighteen million residents. Garbage Dreams provides an important window into one of the world's invisible and endangered communities who slog, dangerously unprotected, through the detritus of the upper classes and barely earn a living wage.

The Zaballeen are a primarily "Coptic Christian community of impoverished peasants from rural Egypt” whose work is collecting the trash of Cairo residents. They earn a small amount for the collection service and also for recycling (a minimum of eighty percent of) what they collect. Garbage Dreams follows several members of the Zaballeen community, and we see them working, playing, hanging out at home, and organizing to save the vocation that has sustained them for generations. An influx of foreign companies is not only taking their customers but also attracting some of their labor force.

Among the individuals documented is seventeen-year-old Adham, who expresses an existential resignation mixed with practical and spiritual acceptance of his destiny. He says, “each one gets what is written,” and demonstrates pride in his community, but is not immune to being embarrassed by his social class, which he refers to as the “Nothing Class." We also see into the life of eighteen-year-old Nabil, who has been contentedly “working in trash” since the age of seven, and Community Social Worker Laila, who walks among the garbage villages administering tetanus shots and providing education about the very serious health risks involved in the Zaballeen profession. Laila also acts as counselor, community organizer, and activist, urging the Zaballeen to prevail over the foreign companies.

Osama is perhaps the most poignant person documented in Garbage Dreams. He is restless and seems to need much more out of life than his current circumstances allow. At just sixteen years old, Osama has worked more jobs than most middle-aged Americans. After years of “looking for the job that suits [him] best,” he finds his destiny in garbage.

Although their focus on recycling is not motivated by environmentalism, I noticed strong anti-waste principles driving the Zaballeen, perhaps mostly because they see the cash to be made in a jumble of discards. When visiting the UK and observing operations at an English sanitation company, Adham is appalled at the sheer wastefulness of not recycling even the smallest scraps possible; not only are outside companies taking their livelihood, they are spitting on their principles to boot.

Garbage Dreams has won a slew of film festival awards, including several Best Documentary, World Cinema Best Director, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography awards. I would add to that Most Excellent Soundtrack and recommend checking out the film’s website and clicking on "How to Help" for information on screenings, distribution, and how to help the Zaballeen.

Written by: Matsya Siosal, December 17th 2009