Sunday, April 25, 2010

Recycling Blues: Garbage Dreams

In the west, organized crime handles waste disposal. In Cairo, it was the untouchable Coptic Christian “Zaballeen” who carted away the city’s trash, but their traditional employment has recently been threatened with the arrival of foreign sanitation companies. Their hard way of life is rhapsodized in Mai Iskander’s Garbage Dreams (trailer here), which airs this Tuesday on PBS’s Independent Lens.

It boggles the mind that a city of eighteen million people could exist without a formal sanitation plan, but such was the case in Cairo. The Zaballeen (Arabic for “garbage people”) collected residents’ trash for a nominal fee, but they really wanted the garbage itself. The hardscrabble Christian community lived by recycling what others discarded. Iskander repeatedly emphasizes the Zaballeen recycle eighty percent of the trash they process, whereas most foreign sanitation services only recycle twenty percent. However, it is painfully obvious this constitutes making a virtue of the Zaballeen’s harsh necessities. They must recycle as much as they do, because they are desperately poor and trapped in a pernicious caste system. They could well be only too happy to purchase more consumer goods, should their fortunes improve.

With their livelihoods, such as they were, in danger, Iskander documents the Zaballeen’s efforts to emphasize their green merits. We follow two young Coptic boys learning the trade at the newly established Recycling School. Though Adham seems to have a natural cockiness, he has accepted his responsibility as his family’s primary breadwinner while father serves a short prison term. In contrast, the easily distracted Osama has trouble holding down a job. Clearly, he is the exception in the community.

Dreams certainly captures the great faith and tremendous work ethic of the Zaballeen. Watching the film, one wishes them greater opportunities in vocations with fewer heath risks and greater social standing. Yet, Iskander essentially fetishizes their difficult work to serve an environmental agenda.

Though problematic, Dreams shines a spotlight on a community forced to the extreme margins of Egyptian society. It airs this Tuesday (4/27) on most PBS outlets as part of the current season of Independent Lens.