Sunday, December 20, 2009

What to do with Garbage Dreams?

The other night I watched one of the potential Oscar nominated documentaries, Garbage Dreams.

This film is fascinating, particularly in the intimate story telling about the life of the 60,000 Zabbaleen, a group of Coptic Christians who live on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt. These people make their living by collecting garbage from Cairo and then from there sorting through it to recycle the raw materials and sell in Egypt and further.

The film is fascinating, because the whole concept of garbage is so different. These people on the lowest end of the social hierarchy want the Egyptian trash, and when Cairo starts outsourcing it's trash services to more modern foreign contractors, the Zabbaleen who's whole society resolves around trash collecting, sorting, recycling is deeply strained.

In Garbage Dreams, I watch as a Westerner initially with some disgust...these people gather trash and bring it to their home. What type of logic is that?, I think. But as their story unfolds, the disgust turns to awe -- these people are recycling 80% of the trash that they collect.

Where my wife and I live, we have the choice the pay more for recycling services, or a lower rate that excludes recycling services. So, it costs to recycle, and in this film these people are using their manual labor and willingness to get their hands dirty to turn a profit. They are manually sorting the garbage and preparing it for recycling - it's fascinating.

And when a few get a chance to travel overseas to see the mechanisation of recycling in Wales, they are in awe of sorting bins and machinery that sorts automatically, but with a recycling rate of less than 30% rate I think their awe is mixed with missed opportunity seeing some recyclable materials missed and sent to landfills - a lost treasure in their mind.

So I watch this and wonder...what is the response.

Obviously, not all documentaries need a response, and while this documentary has been praised by environmentalist and names like Al Gore, the film to me is far more about the modern struggles of this unique group of people, the Zabbaleen, and their unique society and mind-set as they are forced to deal with modernization in a way that adversely effects them...and actually is less ecological.

So is the response that we should care about Egypt's trash collecting future, and discourage these less-ecological foreign companies, is the response to try to be more Zabbaleen ourselves and fight to not bury valuable resources in the dirt, or is it to try to send these kids to America and Western wasteful nations to give them the opportunity to recycle in these places?

The film doesn't really direct a response. So as this film picks up awards and recognition for creating ecological awareness it will be interesting to see what value and meaning is pumped into this film.

I can't quite say what response the film is interested in creating, but I can say that the story of these people a world apart from our own experiences is an incredible story, and I'm thankful for the exposure of these stories. Director Mai Iskander has done a beautiful job telling this story in a clear, thoughtful, and engaging way.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

I've been trying to get my hands on this ahead of the Oscars in March. Really interested to see it based on what you say! I think it might be a darkhorse nominee choice, but what do I know - the favorite docs have been pretty well established already this year.