Gallery: SXSW FILM: Garbage Dreams


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.

+ Garbage Dreams

+ South by Southwest


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  1. felix November 26, 2009 at 6:26 pm

    I got the chance to see this film in New York and really what an amazing story. The whole idea of these garbage collectors being at the vanguard of the environmental movement in Cairo is a story that needs to be heard, and now even more know that their trade is being jeopardiazed by corporations! This film just got shortlisted for the Oscars and I really hope it makes it, that way this village will receive the world’s attention.

  2. BOBBET May 2, 2009 at 12:36 am


    After naming “Garbage Dreams” by director Mai Iskander the winner of the 2009 REEL Current Award at the Nashville Film Festival (NaFF), Al Gore — Nobel Peace Prize winner, Academy Award winner and former Vice-President of the United States — presented the award to Iskander on Friday of last week during a private meeting in Nashville.

    \\\”\\\’Garbage Dreams\\\’ is a moving story of young men searching for a ways to eke out a living for their families and facing tough choices as they try to do the right thing for the planet. Mai Iskander guides us into a \\\’garbage village,\\\’ a place so different from our own, and yet the choices they face there are so hauntingly familiar. Ultimately, \\\’Garbage Dreams\\\’ makes a compelling case that modernization does not always equal progress.\\\”

  3. douglas e lamb March 26, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    can’t wait to get next issue

  4. APaisley March 26, 2009 at 10:10 am

    I had to stand in line twice to see it at SXSW, but this up close and personal journey into the lives of Cairo’s “garbage people was worth the wait. Brilliantly told from the perspective of three teenage boys, this obscure and foreign story becomes somehow familiar as you quickly realize that their dreams are our dreams. If you are expecting to see another sad, downtrodden group of exploited poor people, think again! There are no victims here. These are proud, productive, happy, warm, charming people facing challenges that threaten their survival, yet their dignity, determination and faith remain uncompromised. Efficient recycling is just one of the many lessons to be learned from the Zaballeen!

  5. easied March 25, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Why can’t the contracted European garbage collectors bring all the collected garbage to Mokattam for the Zaballeen to recycle?

  6. flynn_wpb March 24, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    I agree completely with Marja. Garbage Dreams was an incredibly compelling film! I was lucky to see it a SXSW.

    This documentary was an eye opener on many levels. From the efficient and effective recycling practices of the Zaballeen, to the day to day life of these people, who wake up everyday in the slum only to collect trash all day for a nominal amount.

    That said, the three young protagonists in this film were incredible, smart, and intriguing and I fell in love with them and their story!

    You must see the film!!!

  7. marja March 24, 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I saw this film at SXSW and I loved it. I was lucky to get a ticket at the last screening before the film sold out. I waited in line for the second screening at SXSW, but I was unfortunately one of the many who couldn’t get a seat. The screening was sold out all three times!

    The film is not manipulative and let the Zaballeen speak for themself. It was a honest portrayal of a culture and way of life. I was so inspired by this community and the fact that they recycle 80% of the garbage they collect. I will never think of garbage in the same way.

    And I will never forget the charismatic unique and characters.

    I love this film!!!!!

  8. crackgerbal March 24, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    This looks like a really good documentary, I will definitely have to check it out. thanks for posting in this.

  9. shiragolding March 24, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    there’s a short version of this film that you can watch online for free as part of the seventh annual Media That Matters Film Festival:

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