Garbage Dreams, which premiered earlier this month at the South by Southwest film festival, is a documentary that offers an intimate look at Mokattam, a suburb of Cairo known for its poor residents who live among tall piles of garbage. By following the lives of three young men who live and work as garbage collectors in this community, the documentary reveals how a community has supported itself by recycling discarded materials — and how this way of life will change in the future.
Mokattam is home to the Zabballeen people, a Christian minority of 60,000 who have served as garbage collectors for the city of Cairo for the past 150 years. Though the Cairo government now pays the Zabballeen a nominal fee for their services, many members of the community support themselves entirely by recycling discarded material. Using only rudimentary tools, the Zabballeen run one of the world’s most efficient waste management systems, recycling and reusing between 80-90% of what they pick-up. Since the 1980s the Egyptian government has been working to modernize their waste collection system by replacing the Zabballeen with European waste management companies.
The film is the directorial debut of Egyptian American documentary filmmaker Mai Iskander. Iskander began the project on a volunteer trip to Mokattam: while filming local kids for a short documentary about the creation of a mural, she discovered that “in front of the camera, the students blossomed. They were uninhibited and were extremely pleased that an ‘outsider’ took such interest in them.” Iskander was so inspired by her footage that she decided to focus her project on three specific kids and see what happened.
Filmed over the span of three years, Garbage Dreams looks at how these young men find new modes of survival as the Zabballeen way of life becomes obsolete.