Interview with Mai Iskander, Director of "Garbage Dreams"

April 27, 2010

dreamsTonight, Independent Lens will feature “Garbage Dreams,” a documentary about the Zaballeen of Cairo.  “Garbage Dreams” takes viewers inside the world’s largest garbage village, located on the outskirts of the Egyptian capital. The Zaballeen (Arabic for garbage people) recycle 80 percent of the trash they collect — far more than other recycling initiatives. Despite their success, a multi-national corporation now threatens the Zaballeen’s livelihood. Follow three teenage boys born into the business who are forced to make choices that will impact the survival of their community.

THIRTEEN conducted this interview via email with the documentary’s director, Mai Iskander:

T: Why did you decide to make a documentary about the Zaballeen?

MI: “Garbage Dreams” took four years to make. It is a 20th-century coming-of-age story that follows three teenage boys growing up in the world’s largest garbage village, on the outskirts of Cairo. When I first visited the garbage village ten years ago, I understood why it was often referred to as “Dante’s inferno.” Home to 60,000 Zaballeen, it is a world folded onto itself, an impenetrable labyrinth of narrow roadways camouflaged by trash. Garbage is piled three stories high and the smell of rotting vegetables permeates the waste-covered streets. In the midst of it all, the dirt, the poverty, the smell of the garbage, plastic granulators, cloth-grinders and paper and cardboard compacters hum constantly. Recycling 80% of the trash they collect from resident’s homes, the Zaballeen have transformed their garbage neighborhood into a busy recycling enclave.

I was quickly made welcome into this extraordinarily resilient and joyful community and the time I would spend there affected me in profound ways, re-calibrating my notions of community, family, ability, and sustainability. The trash-piled streets where the Zaballeen live, which initially seemed terrifying and dirty to me, started to look like the site of a community eminently worthy of preservation and admiration. Years later, when I returned to the garbage village, a community-run recycling school has just opened in the neighborhood. Its focus was to turn their century-old recycling trade into a 21st-century green job. The Zaballeen had established the recycling school at a crucial moment, as the appearance of multinational waste-removal corporations in Cairo threatened to overturn their occupations and traditions.

Of course, as a filmmaker, I quickly saw potential for a documentary in this David vs. Goliath tale, but it was the teenagers, students and their personal stories that really drew me. The desire of the teenage boys to gain knowledge, to develop their trade and to succeed in life through diligence, determination and persistence was quite inspirational. In addition to the fact that their way of life and community was in jeopardy, these kids were also facing typical teenage concerns: fashion, pop music and their workout routine, and their aspirations to be the coolest and most popular. Over time, I saw more of myself in them and was reminded of our shared humanity. My desire to share this experience with others is what compelled me to make a documentary. The larger story of recycling and the work the Zaballeen was simply a window into the lives of these young Egyptian men. It was their struggle to maintain their dreams for a workable sustainable future, even as those dreams seem impossible to realize, that was the remarkable story that needed to be told.

T: How did you get access to the families in the documentary? How did you come to focus on Osama, Adham, and the others?

MI: In 2005, 10 years after my last visit to Mokattam, I returned to the garbage village 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.

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.

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

When I first started filming, I was introduced to Adham. His enthusiasm for his recycling trade and his desire to develop it was truly inspiring to me. He was very idealistic and a big dreamer. I often wondered how he would pursue his ambitions and how he would come to terms with his reality as he grew older. Osama was a one time happy slacker that couldn’t hold a job. He was charming and is the antithesis to Adham. He added moments of humor to the film. Nabil was someone that does not want much out of life, but only wanted to have a family and some sense of security. His humility and his simple desires are what drew me to him. Also, his family was the one of the families that was most effective by the coming of the foreign multinational waste companies. In the end of the film, Nabil is humiliated by the fact that he has to scavenge for scraps on the streets of Cairo after his family loses their garbage collection route.

One of the greatest obstacles in making “Garbage Dreams” was getting people used to the camera. I spent many hours filming the boys (over 250 hours of footage), documenting all the nuances of their lives. At the beginning, they did not quite understand what exactly I was filming. I decided to give the boys at the recycling school a video camera so they could better understand the filmmaking process.

I was hoping that this would also provide the boys a sense of ownership, so that in some way, they were the authors of their own stories. They listened intently to my instructions, making sure they understood every aspect of the camera. I was blown away by their photographic ability and the intimacy of their footage. I included much more of their footage than I had originally planned. Four minutes of Garbage Dreams was shot by the kids themselves.

T: Who funded Adham’s trip to Wales and why? What was the Welsh woman’s involvement?

MI: A large network of recycling organizations in Wales (CYLCH – invited Adham and Nabil to Wales to learn more about the latest recycling techniques. The organization had learned about the high recycling rate of the Zaballeen. CYLCH wanted to offer an experience exchange to some of the students at the recycling school. Adham and Nabil were chosen because they were the school’s brightest students. The Welsh woman, Mo Green, was their chaperone. Her organization MOre Green is part of the CYLCH.

T: Can you share any developments that have taken place since you finished shooting, whether with Adham, Osama, or the Zaballeen as a whole?

MI: At the end of “Garbage Dreams,” there was less garbage for the Zaballeen to collect and to recycle, yet each of the boys was hopeful that their dreams for their future would somehow be realized. Unfortunately, the ability of the Zaballeen to both acquire and process Cairo’s garbage has become harder in the last few years, and life had become much more challenging for the three young men in the film. Nabil barely scrapes by a living by scavenging for trash on the streets of Cairo. Osama quit his job with the foreign waste companies because the wages they were paying were very low. He works part-time at home pealing the lids off of discarded yogurt cups. He is currently looking for a new full-time job. Adham had the opportunity to attend the “Garbage Dreams’” World Premiere at the SXSW film festival in 2009. During his stay in the US, he visited local high school and universities where he exchanged ideas about recycling. Now back in Cairo, he has recommitted himself to his studies. He is currently unemployed and unable to find any steady work. He is saving the little money he makes with the hope of one day owning his own recycling factory.

T: The situation of the Zaballeen is complex. On the one hand viewers may see the “trash city” and be shocked at the Zaballeen way of life. On the other hand, the primary conflict of the documentary is that this way of life is being threatened. How do you expect PBS viewers to feel about the situation when the credits roll? What types of responses have you received so far?

MI: On the surface, it might seem that “Garbage Dreams” deals with local concerns, but the themes in the film are universal. I am pleased that is what strikes a chord with most viewers.

I hope “Garbage Dreams” will encourage people to re-examine the true value of what they throw away each day and the real cost of throwing out the expertise of Zaballeen. The Zaballeen would work long into the night to clean up after us, the modern, industrialized world. Beyond that, by creating the world’s most effective resource recovery system they are actually saving our earth. From out of the trash, they lifted themselves out of poverty and have a solution to the world’s most pressing crisis.

I also hope that everyone who sees “Garbage Dreams” can see a little bit of themselves in the three teenagers of the film. I hope that everyone who sees the film sees beyond the hardship and poverty of the Zaballeen and discovers the riches they possess — the depth of their love and the strength of their community.

T: What’s your next project?

MI: I am not sure what my next project is, but I am very interested in topics related to poverty and environmental issues. I am particularly drawn to documentaries that are character driven, that play more like a narrative than a documentary, and that also offer food for thought that will bring about solutions to the mess in the world. I hope to do another documentary along those lines in the near future.

Garbage Dreams premieres Tuesday, April 27 at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.