At the heart of director Engi Wassef’s fly-on-the-wall doc Marina of the Zabbaleen is the playful, pony-tailed seven-year-old Marina. The middle child in a family of five, she remains joyfully spirited despite the decaying ghetto she lives in; her home rests in the Zabbaleen, one of the few Coptic Christian communities in a mostly Muslim-populated Cairo, known locally as “Garbage City.” The Zabbaleen are driven by trash up-keep (their main commodity is recycling and garbage disposal) and efficient disposal methods (they feed the garbage to the pigs), regardless of the constant, growing challenges of Cairo’s government outsourcing waste removal, which endangers the livelihood of Marina’s family and other like-minded trash-peddlers. Marina’s mother consistently worries about the rent and putting food on the table, though the monetary strain doesn’t seem to bother Marina, who gleefully swings away on a playground swing set as the wind briskly blows through her hair.
The principal strength of Wassef’s debut is its delicate, revealing look at Marina’s life—how it forgoes a more disruptive, self-referential approach (a la Michael Moore) by skillfully utilizing the camera to catch moments from these peoples’ lives as they unfold, no matter how unnerving; one significantly affecting sequence shows Marina’s landlord bullishly threatening to evict their family as Marina’s mother begs and pleads while the kids look on in a state of horror. Intermittingly employing grainy 8mm footage, the film clearly depicts the texture of the Zabbaleen as a community in trouble and a people who may not have anything left if their litter business closes up shop. Still, Marina and her family never lose faith, and despite their grim and disquieting milieu, they keep on at it, surviving life’s harshest obstacles. A portrait of the few who live off the rubbish of the affluent, Wassef’s Zabbaleen is richly observed and poignant.