Garbage Dreams: One Man's Trash Is Another's Livelihood
The memories are vivid. The dust, the heat, the pervasive stench. The children holding hands, the sweetness of cane juice, and colorful Egyptian weddings. And the garbage. Who could forget the garbage?
It was the summer of 2007, and I was in Mokattam, a garbage village on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. In small villages like Mokattam, 60,000 Zaballeen, or “garbage people,” collect and recycle the trash of Cairo's 18 million residents. Zaballeen manage to recycle 80 percent of what they collect. Most Western cities, in contrast, are lucky to recycle even 30 percent.
The village, and the stories of three local teens—Osama, Adham, and Nabil—are now the subject of an independent documentary film entitled Garbage Dreams, produced and directed by Mai Iskander. Tuesday night, as I sat in a San Francisco screening room, I didn’t know what to expect of a film that aspires to tell the story of a community very close to my heart. I knew to expect familiar faces. Of the three boys profiled, I knew two, and would recognize many others. Mokattam is, as they say, a place where everyone knows everyone.
While gracefully done, Garbage Dreams was not shy about pressing one central conflict: Cairo has contracted with multinational waste disposal corporations in an attempt to modernize. The move has dealt serious blows to the livelihoods of Mokattam's garbage pickers, and the documentary, filmed over four years, explores how Osama, Adham, and Nabil each find a way to cope—and even to hope—in a world that does not seem to be changing in their favor.