"Garbage Dreams" is the story of a people who collect trash for a living, and are treated as even more disposable than the refuse they gather.
For generations, the Zaballeen have been the unofficial trash collectors of Cairo. With no organized municipal service, they travel the city's neighborhoods in beat-up trucks, donkey-pulled cars and by foot to gather garbage, which they then recycle for money. They work collecting doorstep to doorstep, and after that is done they spend grueling hours processing the raw materials into a form that can be used again.
It sounds backward and monotonous, and it is, but the people who do it express a certain amount of pride in doing a job well, even if they are called names and spat upon by the higher classes. The Zaballeen boast that they recycle 80 percent of the trash they collect -- a figure that puts them ahead of virtually all Western countries that profess a green devotion.
But a challenge looms. City officials, eager to adopt modern practices, have hired foreign companies to collect the trash. The Zaballeen are increasingly having to do their work on the sly, as more and more garbage -- and thus their level of income -- goes elsewhere. They are especially galled that the supposedly modern companies recycle only a fraction of the waste they do, sending the rest to be buried in the earth in large landfills. There's a great scene where some of the Zaballeen visit the landfill, and to them it's like watching money being shoveled into a hole.
This documentary by Mai Iskander tracks three teenage Zaballeen and their families over the course of months and years. Adham, 17, resents a future that seems to have no prospect other than collecting trash. "Can I say no to God?" he asks, resigned to what he sees as his fate. Nabil, 18, is obsessed with getting married. But in this culture a young man must have his own apartment to do so, which his family cannot afford.
The most intriguing figure is Osama, 16, who behaves irresponsibly, shirking off school and repeatedly quitting or getting fired from jobs. We learn that his father was put in jail for illegally building an apartment for his son above their own. In his absence, Osama becomes the de facto head of the clan. His inept attempts to order around his sisters, mother and grandmother provoke a pushback from the women.
The other major figure is Laila, a social worker who helps organize the Zaballeen. They've established a school for the children to attend, and even arrange sponsorship for a trip to Wales so the boys can observe modern recycling techniques.
The film is an often powerful document of how a seemingly miserable vocation can become a way of life, even a touchstone for nearly 60,000 people. Their existence gathering trash, harsh and cruel that it may seem to outsiders, is something they've always counted on, and now it's being threatened with extinction.
If the film has a weakness, it's that it sticks completely to the perspective of the Zaballeen. The tale would have been more fully formed if the filmmakers had attempted to interview someone from the foreign companies -- or at least a representative of Cairo city government to hear why they thought hiring them was necessary. Even some perspective from some regular citizens about how they view the Zaballeen would have helped draw a more complete picture.