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The Independent Critic

Mai Iskander
The Zaballeen Community in Egypt
82 Mins.

 "Garbage Dreams" Review 
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In most "civilized" nations, the recycling of 20-25% of all waste is considered a good thing and, in most circles, indicative of an environmentally friendly community.

For the Zaballeen community in Egypt, it is unfathomable.

The Zaballeens, a Coptic Christian community that has, for years, served as the garbage collectors in Cairo and surrounding areas, proudly proclaim in the documentary "Garbage Dreams" that they recycle a full 80% of all the waste they collect.

Let me say that again...80% of all waste is recycled.

80%. Can you imagine?

The Zaballeens, however, are on the verge of losing their way of life when government officials decide that their ways of doing trash pick-up are antiquated and begin to hire foreign waste disposal firms in their place. For the Zaballeens, garbage has practically defined their entire existence and it is, for most in the community, the only way they have to support themselves in a nation where they are considered the social equivalent of nothingness.

Conceived and directed by Mai Iskander, "Garbage Dreams" largely follows the lives of a group of four young members of the Zaballeen community as they deal with life, growing up, jobs and social expectations. The four include: 1) 17-year-old Adham, who has become the man of the house after his father was jailed for attempting to build Adham an apartment without the proper permits, 2) 16-year-old Osama, an immature young man whose difficulty holding a job for more than a month is having increasingly negative consequences, 3) 18-year-old Nabil, who dreams of opening a can-recycling shop of his own but is aware that the Zaballeens may not have much of a future in the business, and 4) Laila, a community nurse who attempts to keep the Zaballeens healthy while helping to organize their efforts to keep waste disposal in their daily lives.

While Iskander is clearly sympathetic to the Zaballeens, she's quite balanced in the ways that she shares life in the community, which often appears as one huge trash dump with piles upon piles of all sorts of waste in streets, alleys and on rooftops. Similarly, while Iskander paints a portrait of a faithful and dutiful people, she doesn't hide away their quirks and weaknesses.

Osama is clearly portrayed as a frequent screw-up, while Adham struggles to be the "man of the house" and frequently borders on abuse with his sister. Nabil longs for a wife, while Laila appears to be a single mother in a society where this can be frowned upon. Yet, all of them are united by a commitment to their longstanding way of life and their acceptance that this life is how God would will it to be for them. Living in conditions that even the most poverty-stricken in the United States would consider unimaginable, the Zaballeens find immense joy and happiness in living their lives humbly.

"Garbage Dreams" is awesomely photographed, though the editing occasionally feels a touch choppy with some scenes feeling a touch disconnected and awkwardly placed such as the scene when Adham finds himself part of a team sent abroad to study waste disposal in Wales. This also begs the question "If this community is so poverty stricken who sent the team abroad?"

Simultaneously charming and a bit humbling, "Garbage Dreams" is an entertaining and informative documentary examining an Egyptian community I dare say few even realize existed. Using the American capitalist mentality, it's easy to understand why Cairo would seek newer, more efficient ways of waste disposal, but by the end of "Garbage Dreams" it becomes clear that, despite their antiquated methods, the Zaballeens not only serve their community faithfully and effectively but are also doing more than virtually any other waste disposal firm in the world for the environment.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic