Monday, January 4, 2010

Mai Iskander's GARBAGE DREAMS high- lights Egypt's Coptic Christian trash trade


Trash (and what to do with it), like other forms of pollution -- not to mention global warming -- is set to become one of the world's more talked-about subjects in the years ahead of us, so GARBAGE DREAMS, the new documentary by Mai Iskander (shown below, with a certain ought-to-have-been-
President), is nothing if not timely. Her film covers the Zaballeen (which, we are told, is the Arabic translation for "garbage people"), a Coptic Christian community on the outskirts of Cairo that occupies the world's largest "garbage village." Sounds enticing, no?

More varied and interesting than it might first appear, Iskander's documentary actually tracks a recent time when this community, a staple of Cairo garbage-collecting for a century, is threatened with extinction because of Egypt's sudden importation of foreign workers and companies to handle the collection. The Zaballeen have made a "go" of their business and their lives due to their very early use of recycling methods, but now these seem not to matter to the powers-that-be (for whom modern methods and cheap labor are more important). Consequently, everyone is scrambling to survive.

The film centers, more or less, on three Zaballeen boys in their late teens -- Adham, Nabil and Osama -- and on Laila, a kind of social worker/
teacher in the community. Adham (pictured at left on the poster, top), the most business-attuned of the three boys, has a dad who is in prison for illegally construc-
ting an apartment for his son so that he can marry (local tradition insists on the groom's having his own digs, pre-nup); Nabil (pictured at right on the poster, top), more family-oriented, is in a similar situation, not being able to afford an apartment prior to marriage; Osama (pictured at right), on the other hand, may have some developmental problems: He can't seem to hold down a job and his priorities appear a little "off." Laila, meanwhile (she's shown standing, center, below), is always present: helping, advising, and providing an ear to listen and a (symbolic)
shoulder to lean on.

Iskander's documentary weaves in and out of these lives -- at one point, going into Cairo to talk with the apartment dwellers whose trash is being collected; at another joining two of the boys on a trip to Wales to learn about recycling techniques. Though there is a bit of narration, and a number of facts/situations presented, certain things are simply not addressed. Since it is the government -- of Cairo? of Egypt? -- that has created the problems by hiring the foreigners without so much as even warning the Zaballeen, one would imagine an interviews with some government officials to see how to improve things. Perhaps because Egypt is not a western democracy, this is not possible. But it would have helped -- if not the situation, at least our understanding of how it might be resolved -- had something about this been explained or addressed. (Are Coptic Christians perhaps relegated to second-class citizenship in a Arab/Muslim state?)

By the end of the film, which pretty consistently holds your attention and is -- god knows -- exotic in its steeping us in the life of a village of garbage, I was confused about what was actually happening, or what might still happen -- and why. While Garbage Dreams had its world premier at the 2009 SXSW fest and has won a multitude of awards from smaller film festivals around the country, I won-
der if this might be due more to its subject and locale than to its outright excellence as a documen-
tary. It's interesting, but it leaves a few too many sub-
jects not fully explored.

Garbage Dreams opens Wednesday, January 6, at New York City's IFC Center.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I loved this film. Garbage Dreams is shot with such unparalleled intimacy and care, that the the viewer establishes a bond not only with the Zaballeen, but with the village of Mokattam itself, where the boys live. The structure of the film and Iskander's directorial approach also strengthen the film's sharp focus. By straying away from the politicians and foreign collectors and keeping the spotlight solely on the Zaballeen, the viewer is able to really connect with the subjects and see their predicament from their distinct point of view, thus giving a voice to a people who have not had the chance to globally speak out for themselves, free of outside input and distraction.

"A must see!" 5 stars!

James van Maanen, said...

Well, Anon -- you liked the film better than I. I'd rate it worth a watch, definitely, but that "bond" you mention never quite arrived for me, nor do I see the same "sharp focus" that you do. For me the focus was rather wobbly and too many questions were left unasked. So it seemed that these people either didn't or couldn't speak out for themselves. Perhaps other viewers will enter the film with more initial understanding of the situation than I did, and thus will better appreciate what they see.

Bede said...

I have to say that this is the best film I've seen all year. I was so moved by these young men, by their struggles and by their amazing faith. I really think every teen should watch this film. It puts life in total perspective. This kids, who live among trash, are able to appreciate it, cherish it, and protect it. What a great way to see life.

James van Maanen, said...

So glad to know how much you liked this movie, Bede. But if THIS is the best film you've seen all year, then you really need to get out to the movies more often.

JulianS said...

I just saw "Garbage Dreams" on PBS/Independent Lens. How inspiring were the stories of these young men.
Their desire to improve their trade was so admirable. The US can learn something from these amazing recyclers.

I love PBS for bringing the best films to television.

Ahmed Naguib said...

Wasn't this film shortlisted for an Academy Award for 2010.

I guess the Academy thought it was one of the best films this year!

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for your comments, Julian and Ahmed. To be honest, I did not keep close track of the shortlist for documentaries (I was more interested in the shortlist for Best Foreign Language Film), but Garbage Dreams may well may have been shortlisted. And while the Academy may have thought this was one of the best films of the year, I did not (the Academy and I -- and most other critics -- have a long history of disagreements, which the Academy, of course, always wins).

I certainly don't discourage anyone from seeing this film, but because I came away from it with more questions than I had going in, I felt it lacking in some respects. I kept wondering how the Zaballeen fit into the larger picture. But I didn't see much of the larger picture (except in the visit to the western world and its recycling plant, which was indeed interesting). This limited focus is a directorial decision, which many applaud, I guess, but it left me wanting more. Perhaps a sequel, MORE GARBAGE DREAMS, is in the works?!