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Trashy film cleans up in Cairo

By Barry Neild, for CNN
  • "Garbage Dreams" tells the story of Zaballeen trash recyclers in Cairo
  • Documentary is now being used by Zaballeen to save their way of life
  • Filmmaker surprised by the impact her award-winning work has had

(CNN) -- When Mai Iskander began filming a documentary about the world's largest community of garbage collectors, they initially greeted her with suspicion. Little did they know her work would soon become a key part of their battle for survival.

Iskander, a New York-based cinematographer, released her debut feature "Garbage Dreams" last year, winning critical acclaim for its portrayal of the Zaballeen people of Cairo, who make a living from recycling trash.

After its premiere in March 2009 at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX., the feature has scooped more than 20 awards, including the Al Gore Reel Current Award, presented by the former U.S. vice president at the Nashville Film Festival.

But it took the film's arrival, almost a year later, in the city in which it was created for "Garbage Dreams" to make its most telling impact -- as a tool for the Zaballeen to alert the citizens of Cairo to their plight.

The film follows the lives of three teenage Zaballeen (Arabic for garbage people) boys as they embark on their careers in the trash recycling business, just as the city begins deploying multinational waste management firms that are threatening their community's traditional way of life.

I was just struck by the environment of it all, but mainly how joyous people were
--Mai Iskander, director
  • Waste and Recycling
  • Egypt
  • Cairo

Since its release, it has been used as an educational tool in the United States. A revamped version of a "Garbage Dream "computer game developed with the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is soon to be distributed to 12,000 U.S. schools to deliver an ecological message.

Now, after a long wait, the film is finally being shown in Egypt and Iskander has granted distribution rights to the Zaballeen themselves, allowing them to use "Garbage Dreams" to environmentally educate their own city.

It couldn't come at a better time. In addition to the threat from multinationals, last year's global swine flu scare prompted Egyptian authorities to order a cull of all Cairo's pigs, robbing the Zaballeen of the income they once received for feeding organic waste to the animals.

And while there is ongoing debate over the Zaballeen's role (there are claims they recycle up to 80 percent of the garbage they handle -- far more than mechanized waste disposal methods, but often only take waste from wealthier parts of the city), there is growing global interest in sustaining their methods.

Iskander, who is half Egyptian, says she was drawn to Cairo's garbage village through the work of an aunt involved in projects -- including a school teaching 21st century recycling techniques -- helping the Zaballeen.

"I was just struck by the environment of it all, but mainly how joyous people were," she told CNN. "It struck me, the contradiction mostly, people who live in poverty you expect to be very glum, but they were very warm and welcoming people."

On another visit, Iskander -- armed with a video camera -- says she was astounded by how ordinary the youngsters seemed, despite their unusual way of life.

"When I brought out my camera what was so amazing, was they just opened up in front of the camera, but what they seemed to really care about -- they were teenagers -- they cared about their hair and who had the biggest muscles.

"The multinationals had come, their life was in jeopardy and the school had opened to help them become modern and hopefully compete with the multinationals -- but they still had their teenage concerns.

"I guess I never really expected them to have the same aspirations as normal human beings -- but they were at that age where you just think about these things."

When Iskander, who had previously worked as a cinematographer and camerawoman on Hollywood feature films, decided to use the material as the basis for a documentary, the Zaballeen were reluctant at first.

"They've always been perceived in such a negative way: 'look at the way they work in garbage,' 'look how dirty they are,'" she said. "They wanted to make sure that the good parts were highlighted and they needed to trust me.

"Also, the Egyptian relationship to media is very different than maybe in the U.S., where you want to tell the truth about the situation, they feel like media is part of an agenda, they didn't understand this concept of verité."

Iskander was guided through the Zaballeen world by the Spirit of Youth Foundation, a non-governmental organization that was last year handed a $1 million grant by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation after its work was highlighted in "Garbage Dreams."

Some of this money is going towards a scheme to encourage Cairo residents to separate their trash to aid the Zaballeen's recycling processes -- with Iskander's film forming a key part of the campaign.

"People can be very classist in Egypt and they don't understand that people are the same everywhere," the director said.

"When they see through the film that they share very much the same experiences, and it doesn't matter that these people are poor, then that opens the door to dialogue and makes people want to help them out."

Iskander, who is planning another documentary looking at the environmental practices of indigenous peoples, is happy with the results so far.

"The film has had a lot more impact than I expected," she said, although she adds that she always intended "Garbage Dreams" to go further than just a simple record of the Zaballeen way of life.

"If I'd just done a film about them and what they do, they would have felt it was just another victim film, even if I didn't portray it that way."