March 16, 2010

Taking It Home: Garbage Dreams

Don't miss Garbage Dreams on PBS' Independent Lens this April 27th

I'm borderline-OCD about a few things in my life (or maybe more than a "few" things, depending who you ask), and one of those things is taking out the trash - especially trash containing food scraps. I just can't stand the smell when food begins to go bad after a day or two at room temperature, so the bag must be deposited outside in the dumpster (or composted, though I admit I'm behind the curve on that) as soon as possible, even if it isn't filled to the top.

The other day at work I was nearly brought to my knees by a stench emanating from the garbage can in our office kitchen. I hightailed it out of there, hoping that someone would be brave enough
(you don't have a custodial staff at small nonprofits) to eliminate this hazardous waste before it caused permanent olfactory damage for anyone in a 50 foot radius.

Alas, when I arrived at work the next morning and went to pour myself a cup of coffee, the smell in the kitchen was, in a word, unholy. I have a very keen nose and tolerate a lot of offensive scents on a daily basis, but I honestly haven't smelled something this nauseating in I can't remember how long (the formaldehyde-soaked human cadavers I dissected in college smelled like roses in comparison). I am truly convinced that whatever was in there was either decomposing or rotting alive; this was not simply someone's day-old beef with broccoli.

Now, I wouldn't be telling you this story if it was not in fact I who took on the heroic task of slaying this beast. But what you don't know, and what I seriously had to acknowledge as my eyes watered from the toxic fumes on the way out to the dumpster, was just how pathetic my feat was in comparison to the daily duties of some 60,000 Zabbaleen living in the "Garbage City" on the outskirts of Cairo. For generations, this community of Coptic Christians has made a living by collecting garbage from the 18 million residents of the overcrowded capital and removing it from sight, sorting and recycling close to 80% of their load. (Until last year's swine flu outbreak they fed tons of compostable waste to thousands of pigs on a daily basis, but the Egyptian government outrageously ordered every last pig slaughtered for fear of the ill-named pandemic.)

Mai Iskander's Garbage Dreams tells the story of the Zabbaleen through the eyes of three charming teenagers - 16 year-old Osama, 17 year-old Adham, and 18 year-old Nabil. The boys are mature according to their age (and age difference), and each has his own "dreams" for the future, which are not necessarily the pie-in-the-sky fantasies that you might imagine. Osama just wants a stable job ("I have had many careers," he amusingly laments), Adham hopes to open his own can-cutting plant, and Nabil is more concerned with finding a wife than a new occupation.

Hanging over the story of these boys like a threatening storm cloud is the fact that the municipal government in Cairo recently sought a more "modern" sanitation system by contracting garbage collection out to foreign companies. The Zabbaleen were blindsided by this development and were faced to consider, for the first time in their history, that they ironically may no longer be able to depend on the ever-increasing amount of garbage piling up in Cairo. Worse, it was plain to see that the foreign companies did not recycle nearly as much as the Zabbaleen (for that matter neither do developed countries, as Adham and Nabil discovered on a week-long trip to Wales to see their "advanced" recycling program). 

I was struck by so many thoughts while watching Garbage Dreams, not the least of which was how fortunate Iskander was to find these three boys and their families to represent what is happening. The film is not perfect by technical merits but it is edited beautifully and it resists the temptation to begin telling too many stories (about religion, about Egypt, about poverty, about family systems, etc., etc., etc.). 

The focus is on the trash, and all of the beautiful human stories that can come out of it. Not only did Garbage Dreams make me seriously ponder the huge, close-to-overflowing garbage can sitting at the movie theater exit, but it has encouraged me to fully engage with the trash I create - and complain about. In this case, as the rather loaded saying goes, "one man's trash is another man's treasure."

What did you take home?

Selected clips from the film are viewable on Independent Lens' YouTube Channel


  1. You did indeed 'take me home' Daniel, as I pretty much have the exact same sentiments. I saw this film (one of my first of the new year) back in January, and reported my solidly-positive reaction on the Monday Morning Diary:

    GARBAGE DREAMS, set in Cairo, centers around the “Zaballeen,” an Egyptian lower-class group of Christian denomination who recycle nearly 80% of the city’s waste, in the absence of an official city-wide garbage collection program. The Zaballeen are paid a pittance for for their services. The film centers around three teenage boys who support their families collecting trash and one young woman (the latter of whom serves as a social worker who tries to keep people in her neighborhood healthy. The director’s sentiments in this film are obvious, and Garbage Dreams is rather capitalist in its approach, emphasizing the work Laila and the Zabballeens do to learn how garbage is handled in other parts of the world and improve their service through education and modernization rather than any kind of protest or attempts to endure on anything but hard-earned merit. The teenagers are survivors, who uphold with dignity a long cultural tradition. The film runs only 79 minutes, and it doesn’t really scratch the surface of this lifestyle, but it certainly a modesty engaging and inspirational story of those who make what they can with what little they have."

    The director of the film appeared at the screening, and some of the questions were enlightening, especially those that broached the struggle experienced in the filmmaking process. But this is more than a documentary of course, but a poignany human interest story. As per your affinity for this form, you've penned a highly engaging and thought-provoking essay, where you rightly pose among other concerns the sharp focus of the story, which didn't try to take on too much.

  2. I definitely remember your report on this one, Sam - it's part of the reason I was so interested to see it when it finally arrived here. Thanks for adding your thoughts here. Mai Iskander was also at the screening here, and one detail that I think needs to be acknowledged is the fact that her aunt actually runs the recycling school that the boys attend. I didn't learn that until the Q & A and I don't think it heavily influences the film (she's not really trying to prove any point with this, thankfully), but it does show through in her genuine interest in the Zabbaleen's situation.

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