The “Nothing” Class

by |
01/06/2010 8:00 AM |

Garbage Dreams

Directed by Mai Iskander

Class stratifactions in Cairo are as follows: there is the upper class, the middle class, and then, says 17-year-old documentary subject Adham, there is his own, the “nothing” class. Adham and his family are members of the Zabbaleen, a sect of some 60,000 Coptic Christians who make their living by collecting, sorting, and recycling the garbage produced by the 18 million residents of Cairo. Profiling Adham and his two friends, Nabil and Osama, Mai Iskander’s excellent documentary is first a primer on how a class of scavengers makes do on a day-to-day basis, but also an acute example of how external forces and cultural shifts dramatically alter tradition.

Garbage Dreams opens with footage of a garbage trucks floating through streets of Cairo at dawn, and of young Zabbaleen kids scrambling to pick up bags of trash off the doorsteps of residents. The documentary then follows the refuse on a journey to the goat-filled town of Mokattam, the “garbage slum” where the Zabbaleen take their work home to sort, tear to bits, and ship off to manufacturers in other countries. Isolated details (sorting yogurt lids) and interviews with Zabbaleen expose the grueling work of sorting trash, and show also the psychological effect of the profession: “Sometimes I get embarrassed [by my job] but I must live with this, it’s my fate:” says Adham, who proves himself a trooper over the three year span in which Iskander filmed.

The time frame gave the filmmakers the opportunity to cover the recent encroachment of private garbage contractors from Spain and Italy, whose arrival has since upset the fragile human ecosystem of Cairo’s waste management. The green hazmat uniforms and fancy new garbage trucks appeal to richer residents who see “traditional” garbage picking as old-fashioned, and yet, we are told though interviews with community organizers ( who figure prominently in the film as field guides) the Zabbaleen recycle 80% of waste, compared to the miserly 20% the foreign companies achieve. Following Adham and his friends into their social circles and family homes, Iskander and Hirson demonstrate how this newfound hardship has affected the formative moments of Zabbaleen youth, many of whom have now delayed marriage for lack of income. Meanwhile, clan loyalties break when the 16-year-old Osama defects from the family garbage industry in exchange for a stable job with the foreign trash collectors.

Using microcosmic examples to demonstrate universal issues of globalization, modernization, and coming of age, Iskander braves the smell to provide us with a transportive cultural exchange.

Opens January 6 at IFC Center