THE BLOG
04/14/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Dreams of an Egyptian Trash Trader

In the backstreets of Cairo, recycling is not a modern-day affectation of the environmentally conscious. It is a centuries-old survival mechanism, sustaining the 60,000 Zabbaleen, or garbage people, who make their living from what the rest of the city throws away.

Every day, they collect more than 3,000 tons of garbage and sift through it, eking out a living by recycling 80 per cent of what they have gathered. They live and work in what is effectively a giant waste processing plant, at once an appalling slum and a monument to the creativity of the human spirit when survival is at stake.

You'd think that with the recycling boom in recent years, these backstreet trash traders would have stood to benefit. Yet a cruel irony lies at the heart of Mai Iskander's debut film Garbage Dreams, which follows three teenage boys growing up in the filth-strewn allies of Mokattam, Cairo's garbage village.

As the rest of the world wakes up to the need to recycle waste, the Zabbaleen's way of life is coming under threat. Foreign waste management companies have been contracted to dispose of Cairo's garbage, leaving the Zabbaleen to watch as their bread and butter is snatched from under their noses.

When they visit the landfill site and see what is being done with the trash that once sustained them, they are incredulous. "How could you bury a fortune like this?" they ask.

The question is never answered. Garbage Dreams is more than a study of a community struggling to come to terms with the harsh realities of globalization. It is a meditation on what waste means to those with nothing, skilfully revealing the secret life of a community reliant on what others throw away without stripping its members of their dignity.

At times it is a delicate balancing act. The Zabbaleen, announces seventeen year-old Adham, are Egypt's "nothing class." Work-shy 16-year-old Osama endures taunts of "garbage boy" as he picks up trash from the street.

Yet somehow the characters do not slip into self-pity, instead accepting their fate with a stoic determination to improve their lot despite the challenges looming over them.

Iskander's background as a fiction cinematographer explains the artful camera work that makes the most of the extraordinary location in which the Zabbaleen live. Her decision to eschew narration in favor of letting her characters tell their own stories enhances the sense of intimacy she achieves.

The result is a powerful portrait of a traditional community living in the shadow of globalized industry. The young men followed in Garbage Dreams represent the next generation of Zabbaleen. They embody the wishes and fears of all those around them.

They may live in dire poverty, facing an uncertain future in a city that does not care about them, but there is something in their hopes and dreams that even the wealthiest audience will find hauntingly familiar.

This is Garbage Dreams' greatest strength. It bridges the ever-widening gap between rich and poor, between the haves and the have-nots, and illuminates the common thread of humanity that binds us together, revealing the hidden cost of a city's quest for "progress" in an ever-shrinking world.