There are probably any number of communities throughout the world, hidden to the Western eye, where traditional ways of life are threatened by government and/or corporate-sponsored modernization. While the Jia Zhang-kes and Olivier Assayases of the film world take as their subjects the far more visible consequences of a transforming China and Europe, it’s left to the smaller documentarian to highlight uncovered and at-risk pockets of humanity in less developed parts of the world. In Garbage Dreams, Mai Iskander’s handsomely shot and intermittently fascinating look at Cairo’s Zaballeen community of trash collectors, the filmmaker documents an entire population faced with extinction. While the Zaballeen have long made their living scouring the streets for garbage and recycling their findings into raw materials, the government’s desire for modernization has led them to institute the city’s first concerted garbage-removal system, outsourcing the work to foreign companies and leaving an impoverished community further impoverished. But with new problems come new opportunities, and Garbage Dreams smartly focuses on a younger generation of teenage workers who stand to benefit from the Zaballeen’s new focus on education and updated techniques. But since even these kids lack the training for anything but garbage work, Iskander’s film registers most powerfully as a lament for a community left behind.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 5, 2010