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Garbage Dreams
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by Jay Seaver

"One person's trash is another person's lifeblood."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SXSW FILM FESTIVAL: Mai Iskander has made a fine documentary in "Garbage Dreams", the type that is about people first, and does a fine job of being issue-oriented without hammering away at buzzwords like "globalization". For all that, I must admit that one of the most memorable things from the movie is a simple number: Eighty percent.

That is the amount of residential waste that the Zaballeens of Cairo are able to recycle. That's a fantastic number - most developed nations manage something in the twenties - and as might be expected, it comes through unconventional means: Though Cairo is a city of eighteen million, the largest in the Arab world or Africa, it had no official city-wide garbage collection program, instead relying on sixty thousand independent garbage collectors (the Zaballeens) who are paid a pittance for their services. Entire communities are built around garbage collection and recycling.

The largest is Mokattam, and Garbage Dreams focuses on three teenage boys and one young woman from the area: 17-year-old Adham collects garbage to support his family as the man of the house with his father in jail; 18-year-old Nabil has been working since the age of seven and has twin dreams of marrying and opening a can-recycling shop; and 16-year-old Osama is kind of a screw-up, unable to hold a job even though his father is pushing him to do something with his life other than root through other people's trash. Then there's Laila, a local social worker who tries to keep the people in her neighborhood healthy. She also finds herself fighting for the neighborhood's very survival when the city hires several European companies to handle trash collection.

There's never any doubt as to where Iskander's sympathies lie, but she avoids the simple polemics that can easily beset this sort of film. For all the disparagement of "foreign companies", Garbage Dreams is often fairly capitalist in its approach, emphasizing the work Laila and the Zaballeens do to learn how garbage is handled in other parts of the world and improve their service through education and modernization rather than any sort of protest or attempts to thrive on anything other than merit. She also does well in how she shows us that Mokattam's Garbage City is, to be frank, pretty gross to look at, enough so as to give the audience pause when considering the pros and cons of preserving this way of life - as much as the rest of the world could probably learn from them about garbage and recycling, the alleys certainly look like must be breeding the world's hardiest bacteria and immune systems.

Despite that, it's produced some nice folks. The teenagers are survivors, early dropouts going to the school of hard knocks, but the filmmakers have found kids who are kind of amusing as well as sincere and outgoing: Osama messes up at various jobs, Nabil is focused on finding a wife, and Adham picks up odd musical tastes abroad and squabbles with his sister. Naila appears to be a single mother, with her kids accompanying her on her rounds. Their dedication to the business of garbage is odd to us, but charming.

In fact, the world needs more people with this level of devotion and expertise where recycling is concerned. "Garbage Dreams" does a fine job of introducing us to the Zaballeen, and I hope both that these kids do OK and the rest of the world learns from them.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18405&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/17/09 11:39:24
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Vail Film Festival For more in the 2009 Vail Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 2009 Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/29/09 Eirin A very interesting film, but a little boring after all. 4 stars
3/17/09 james obrien its a cool little film 4 stars
IF YOU'VE SEEN THIS FILM, RATE IT!
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USA
  06-Jan-2010

UK
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Australia
  06-Jan-2010


Directed by
  Mai Iskander

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