One of my favorite films is Egyptian-born director Mai Iskander’s haunting and untethered Garbage Dreams, a documentary on the ultra-resourceful lives of Egypt’s Coptic Zaballeen. The documentary is significant not only because it tracks the slow degradation of an already marginalized minority group in a tumultuous nation, but because the issues of garbage and recycling will never, ever go away, anywhere.
Iskander introduces us to Cairo’s Zaballeen, Arabic for “Garbage People,” who recycle more than 75% of the garbage they collect by hand, turning it back into raw materials shipped to manufacturers around the world. The Mubarak-era government replaces the thrifty Zaballeen with wasteful multinational collection firms that recycle less than 25% of the garbage they collect, sending the rest to enormous landfills. The film follows the lives of a few young adults affected by the change: one, a scoundrel, and the others, heroes.
After tracking down the director of this excellent film a year later, I recently discovered, but have yet to watch, Iskander’s follow-up: an elegant, deceptively simple film, Words of Witness, which follows 22 year-old amateur journalist Heba Afify on her struggle to cover her country’s democratic evolution.
Anyone up for a viewing party?