In “Garbage Dreams,” Mai Iskander’s stunning docu-helming debut, three teenage boys scramble to save an Egyptian city built on garbage from economic disaster. Docu focuses on the Zaballeen, a “nothing” class of Coptic Christians some 60,000 strong, who for generations have eked out a living by collecting and repurposing trash, achieving a staggering 80% recycling rate (as opposed to the 20-30% that commonly passes for ecological success). The Zaballeen now face obsolescence as international sanitation companies appropriate their livelihood. This strikingly shot, Oscar-shortlisted docu, which has scooped up multiple fest awards, opens Wednesday at Gotham’s IFC Center.
Though products of the same environment, Iskander’s three teen garbage-scavengers emerge as distinct in outlook and personality. Adham, an ambitious 17-year-old, dreams of opening a can-cutting factory. Nabil, 18, a thoughtful mural painter who exudes such quiet patience that flocks of pigeons roost in his arms, wants to help his community. Osama, a screw-up who can’t hold a job for more than a week, seeks importance and respect.
But the film’s most amazing character is the fantastic garbage town of Mokattam itself, with its winding alleyways piled high with trash, its buildings half exposed, riddled with crevices stuffed with bags of refuse. Children play on colorful mountains of shredded fabric, while their slightly older siblings sort plastics and paper in huge sacks, later to be pulverized and sold abroad as raw material.
When an org sends Adham and Nabil to Wales to study modern recycling methods, the culture shock is immediate and visceral; nothing could be further from the heat and bustling throngs of Mokattam than the intensely green tranquility of Wales. “The cars stopped for us,” Adham exclaims, amazed. Yet though they are impressed by the residents’ sorting of recyclables and the spotless sanitation trucks, they find that the technologically advanced plants lack “precision,” letting all kinds of garbage go unsalvaged.
The pic deals in understated social ironies. The Zaballeen’s working conditions, doubtlessly highly unsanitary, create a more environmentally safe Cairo, whereas the streamlined international trash-disposal companies merely bury their mistakes, albeit odorlessly.
Tech credits are aces. Iskander has worked extensively as a cinematographer and, as fascinating as her anthropological revelations are, it’s her lensing that grants her subjects immense dignity (they never appear “other” in their poverty) and her film its curious beauty.