Garbage Dreams Sweeps Up Accolades with a Compelling Story of Trash Salvagers

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When I see films in our big chain movie theater, I like to get the mega-large soft drink. They have a good fountain, and I like to have the big, iceburg of a drink to share throughout the movie, and then get a refill to take home. It's a bit obscene, I think it's 64 ounces and crammed with ice, and takes two hands to carry. Do you ever look in the trash cans on the way out of the theater? The cups and buckets are huge. I'm lucky if I don't spill half of my drink, and then I have the crappy, soggy cup to contend with. It's a bad habit.

I am so glad that I didn't have my giant sippy cup when I saw Garbage Dreams at SXSW in March 2009. Garbage Dreams is an excellent film, and it leaves you thinking about every cup, straw wrapper, and paper towel you use. Filmmaker Mai Iskander premiered her documentary in Austin to sold-out screenings, and it has been lauded in frequent festival showings since then. If you can make it to one of the five upcoming fall festivals screenings listed below, you should. Garbage Dreams changes the way you look at the world. At your garbage, for starters.

Garbage Dreams follows the lives of three young men who are born into the trash trade, growing up in the world's largest garbage village, on the outskirts of Cairo. Generations of "Zaballeen" entrepreneurs have removed trash from Cairo for only minimal payment from individuals. The trash has transformed their village into a massive dump and recycling center. Rudimentary tools and the will to survive created an extremely efficient (recycling 80% of trash collected) operation. The streets serve as sorting centers. Cardboard compactors, plastic chippers and rag shredders chug along on generators, but the majority of work is done by hand and then the reclaimed materials are sold to the industrial trade.

The story is a compelling look at the change the boys face when Cairo formally outsourced their village's work to multi-national companies.

I attended the screening to see how the film was made, but I felt much like film student Chelsea Hernandez did, who blogged about seeing the film in her Introduction to Documentary class blog: "There is not much I can say about the filmmaking, because the story took all my attention. So, saying that actually says the filmmaking was wonderful. Isn't that what we're taught in film school? The story should drive the audience emotions and keep their attention, rather than calling attention to the filmmaking process." On Chelsea's blog you can see the outstanding Q&A session from one of the screenings at SXSW, including the thoughts of one of the young subjects, Adham, who at 17-years old is his family's breadwinner.

Leila Darabi, from whom I learned the lingo "garblogging," wrote at everydaytrash: "It’s an emotionally pulling conflict. My natural instinct is to root for the Zaballeen to win out and remain the city’s trash collection system, but it’s hard to feel good about all that comes along with that profession…life in a garbage slum, generation after generation working harder for less money, dangerous contact with sharp and toxic materials…"

Christina Lingstrom is currently blogging her trip to work with Honduran trash salvagers at Take Part. She describes the landfill as "highly competitive and violent." Before her team left for Hondoras they met with Mai to learn some of the expertise she gained following her subject for four years.

After festival runs throughout the rest of the year, Garbage Dreams will reach a television-viewing audience with a spring feature on PBS's Independent Lens series which is kicking off with an engaging fall line-up of documentaries. 

I'm so excited to follow the progress of Mai Iskander's Garbage Dreams, and for her to continue to collect the kind of recognition that will attract funding for whatever projects she envisions next. The PBS viewership is massive, and it's a prestigious coup for a filmmaker.

Watching at home has advantages, too, in that you can pop your own corn and spare the world one more paper tub and one more massive soda cup. Something has got to give.

Garbage Dreams Fall Festival Screenings

Landlocked Film Festival (Iowa) August 27-30

Ferndale Film Festival (Michigan) September 3-7

Kansas International Film Festival (Kansas) September 18-24

Camden International Film Festival (Maine) October 1-4

Arab Film Festival (California) October 15-25

Deb Rox is a consultant, blogger and mother of teenagers who collect pizza boxes in her house when she is at conferences and festivals. She blogs at Deb on the Rocks and is the author of 5 Ways to {Blank} Your Blog which she would love to shoot as a tell-all documentary.

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