Residents of Cairo, a city of 18-million people, have traditionally relied on underpaid 'Zaballeen,' or garbage people, to clean up their trash. In Garbage People, director Mai Iskander follows three teenage boys who work in the garbage trade, and dream of finding their way to a cleaner, easier way of life.
Surviving on the Waste of Others
Documentaries about impoverished communities around the globe -- in Latin America, Africa and Asia -- feature heart wrenching images of children picking their way through garbage dumps to gather food to eat or material goods to sell. But nothing quite compares to the story of Cairo's Zaballeen, a community of Egyptian Coptic Christians who have for generations survived by scouring their city for trash, carting it off to their 'garbage neighborhood' and recycling it.
Mai Iskander follows Adham, Osama and Nabil, three bright and likable teenagers, as they continue to work in the profession of their parents, yet dream of finding a better way to make their living. While coping with meager living conditions and a daunting struggle to survive, they never lose their spirit and hope.
But add to their drama the fact that in 2003, the city signed multimillion dollar contracts with three foreign companies to collect and process Cairo's garbage, thereby depriving these three leading characters, and their entire community, of their sources for survival. Adham, Osama and Nabil are forced to seek alternative sources of income -- sources that don't really exist for them -- and the future is even more uncertain now than it has been for all of their challenging lives.
Economic and Ecological Disaster
Ironically, Cairo's contractual modernization of garbage collection in the city has been not only economically disastrous for the Zaballeen, it has also given rise to new problems of urban ecology. The foreign garbage removal companies are required to recycle only 20 percent of the waste they collect, and they deposit the remainder in huge and fetid landfills. In contrast, the Zeballeen are famous for recycling 80 percent of the garbage they collect, if only to eke out every last bit of value from it. Under their garbage removal regime, Cairo had been one of the world's recycling success stories. Now with the new system, the full extent of the adverse ecological impact is still unknown.
This is a social, political and economic situation that is crying out for reform. Hopefully Garbage Dreams will draw sufficient attention to it to make for a change for the better.
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- Garbage Dreams
- Director: Mai Iskander
- Release Date: July 31, 2009 (limited)
- Running Time: 79 mins.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Country: United States
- Location: Egypt
- Language: English
- Production Company: Iskander Films