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SXSW '09 Interview: "Garbage Dreams" Director Mai Iskander

by William Goss

The "Garbage Dreams" Pitch: "Filmed over four years, GARBAGE DREAMS follows three teenage boys - Adham, a bright precocious 17 year old; Osama, a charming impish 16 year old; Nabil, a shy artistic 18 year old - born into the trash trade and growing up in the world's largest garbage village, a ghetto located on the outskirts of Cairo. It is a world folded onto itself, an impenetrable labyrinth of narrow roadways camouflaged by trash; it is the home to 60,000 'Zaballeen' (or 'Zabbaleen', Arabic for 'garbage people.') When their community is suddenly faced with the globalization of its trade, each of the teenage boys is forced to make choices that will impact his future and the survival of his community."

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
GARBAGE DREAMS follow three boys raised in the trash trade and growing up in the world's largest garbage village, on the outskirts of Cairo.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience?
Yes, this is my first trip to SXSW. I haven't had much film festival experience. I am excited to discover unknown territory.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be "When I grow up, I want to be a..." what?
A vet.

Not including your backyard and your dad's Handycam, how did you get your real "start" in filmmaking?
I loved going to watch movies as a teenager so I decided to go to film school. While at NYU Film School, I was given the opportunity to work with the Academy Nominated cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (Amadeus). I soon join the camera union and went from working as camera assistant to cinematographer. GARBAGE DREAMS is my directorial debut.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it's on "the festival circuit?"
It is definetly both exciting and nerve-wracking to have your passion project out on the festival circuit.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
I wish I was more like Miss Piggy.

During production, did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
No, I was always too busy working on the film to think ahead.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
My father was born and raised in Egypt and growing up I had often visited my extended family that still lived in Cairo. When I was a young teenager, friends of my family brought me to Mokattam, the garbage city on the outskirts of Cairo to attend a local wedding. Amid the crowded rooftops, goats, geese and chicken grazed on remnants of waste. Garbage was piled three stories high. Children played on a mountain of multi-colored rags.

Then, Cairo, a city of 18 million, had no city wide waste disposal system. For generations, residents depended on the Zaballeen, Egypt's "garbage people," to collect their trash. The Zaballeen made a living by recycling the city's garbage. Everyday, the Zaballeen would bring the city's garbage back to their neighborhood, their "garbage city."

Years later, in 2005, I returned to Mokattam and volunteered to help paint a mural at the neighborhood's Recycling School. I filmed a few of the students — applying vibrant colors and making whimsical pictures on a drab concrete wall — thinking that I could cut together a little film about their mural as a present for them.
And in front of the camera, the students blossomed. They were uninhibited and really pleased that a “outsider” took such interest in them. Most of all, they were proud of their way of life and their history. And like typical teenagers, they wanted to show off their fashion sense, their workout routine, their music. Always wanting to outdo each other.

We became fast friends. The students later confided in me how difficult things were becoming for their families financially. The whole community was starting to feel the recent globalization of its trade.

A while back, Cairo had hired foreign companies to start collecting Cairo's trash. The Zaballeen's job were slowly being outsourced. The 10,000 tons of trash that the city of Cairo generated each day and that the Zaballeen depended on for their survival would be buried.

It was then that I decided to start filming their story.

Four years later, after filming and editing, GARBAGE DREAMS is starting to see the light of day. SXSW is the film's premiere and it will travel to a handful of festivals soon after.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
It's better not to know what lies ahead.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
I really enjoyed the documentary film "Daughter from Danang." I loved how that the documentary took the viewer full circle and left you to make their own opinions.

Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
I love all of the Maysles' movies and their cinema verite approach to documentary filmmaking. I followed that approach when I was filming. Once I started editing, the film seemed to create itself.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
My dad - he would be the Egyptian version of Homer Simpson.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big time. And why, of course.
Osama, one of the teenage garbage recyclers that I followed. When I told Osama that I was going to come over and take publicity still, he had his hair sliced back like Clark Gable. After we took the pictures, he told me to make sure he got to sign them before I hanged them in any New York City pizzarias.

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd almost definitely be...
...Miss Piggy. Didn't you ask this already?

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with?
When I worked as a camera assistant, I had the opportunity to meet and work with alot of actors. I worked with Meryl Streep on the film "One True Thing." I would love to work with her again. I loved watching her act.

Have you 'made it' yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say "Yes, wow. I have totally made it!"?
Once I "make it," I will stop and retire. I'm not ready to retire yet, so I guess I haven't made it yet.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
I think the audience is the most important critic.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Windmills. They look cool too!

What's your take on the whole "a film by DIRECTOR" issue? Do you feel it's tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film - or do you think it's cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
I think it is understood that lots of people have also been a part of making a film, but ultimately it's the director that is responsible to keep the momentum of the project going.

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
In this film, you will meet the people that live on your trash.


Mai Iskander's Garbage Dreams will play as part of the 2009 South By Southwest's "Documentary Competition" slate. For more information, click here or visit the official website.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2693
originally posted: 03/05/09 15:05:14
last updated: 03/05/09 16:15:58
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