Mai Iskander’s documentary film “Garbage Dreams was one of the highlights of a conference on sustainability that took place last week.
Set in Cairo’s densely-packed neighborhood of Mansheyet Nasser, the film takes us into the world of Osama, Adham, Nabil and Leila who live and – try to – work in the decades old industry of waste collection for which the area is famous.
Osama, Adham and Nabil are teenage zabaleen (garbage collectors) while Leila is a nurse who works in the community. The film, which has won five awards including Al Gore’s Reel Current Award, looks at an issue which has received much media coverage from a unique perspective.
During a Cairo conference on sustainability held last week – where the film was shown – American-Egyptian Iskander was asked how she managed to create this window into her protagonists’ lives; an audience member asked whether the film’s dialogue had been scripted, astonished at how natural it is.
“I filmed and filmed until they forgot I was there, Iskander explained, adding that she shot over 250 hours of film. Iskander – whose interest in the zabaleen community was aroused after a visit to the Mansheyet Nasser neighborhood when she was 12 – was granted unique access to the zabaleen community.
The “Garbage Dreams project began while Iskander was volunteering at Mansheyet Nasser’s Recycling School, which provides education tailored to the needs and schedules of working children whose income is more often than not a lifeline for their families.
Iskander, who was trained as a camera assistant, says that she began filming one of the boys, who then “went around boasting that an American film crew was making a film about him – when it was just me.
The film’s star is Osama, an immensely lovable buffoon who lurches from job to job, driven out of each one by his colleagues’ name-calling. Adham is a more complex figure. He says at the beginning of the film that being a zabal is his “fate.
“How can I say no to God? he asks.
There is a real sense however that whether resignedly or enthusiastically, recycling is more than just a job for Adham. He and Nabil are given the opportunity to travel to Wales, UK, to see how the garbage collection and recycling system works there.
Watching workers pick bottles off a conveyor belt, Adham is astonished by the amount of what he regards as recyclable waste left on the belt, and stunned when he is told that it will end up in a landfill site.
Adham’s ambition to open a can-recycling factory is dealt a crippling blow when the Egyptian government signs contracts with three foreign garbage collection companies; all of the zabaleen community suffers as a result of the decision.
It is Osama who is able at some level to benefit from it: he joins one of the companies as a garbage collector.
The release of “Garbage Dreams comes at a timely moment in the history of the ongoing calamity that is Cairo’s garbage collection system, providing a ray of light in what is a murky picture of bad decision-making, ulterior motives and poor implementation.