Garbage Dreams‘s images have the unsettling primal power of a dystopian sci-fi movie come to life. The picture concerns the citizens of a community on the outskirts of Cairo, a group called the Zaballeen (Arabic for “garbage people”), who collect and recycle Cairo’s trash with, it’s implied, the city’s barest knowledge; they are real-life fairies, taken, of course, for granted. The opening passages introduce us—jarringly—to the Zaballeen community’s structure and day-to-day life, showing us a village stacked to the roofs with refuse, with trash on the sides of nearly every visible street. This isn’t willy-nilly chaos, because a method exists: The Zaballeen recycle 80 percent of the trash they collect, exporting it to other countries to barely sustain a way of life; that is, until corporations buy out Cairo’s trash trade, slowly strangling the community’s livelihood.
The theme of Garbage Dreams—an outcry against fat-cat greed—is one that’s sadly too traditional to so many impassioned “fight the power” movies, but director Mai Iskander has a light touch that sneaks up on you. The Zaballeen’s shock (we primarily follow three teenagers and one social worker) at the corporate trash collectors, who they assumed to be superior to their own antiquated methods, manages to be authentically shocking for us as well because Iskander doesn’t initially wear her manipulations on her sleeve. The film understands that big issues derive from the small, so that by the time we are faced with the dwindling income and the ridiculously reduced competing recycling rate (20 percent), we don’t find ourselves responding in glib detachment to “another environmental documentary.” We see exactly how much less noodles these people are eating, and exactly how much tighter their living quarters become. The picture takes you beyond grand, seemingly unconquerable global issues of increasingly scarce resources and points to a case: This is how someone can be more resourceful, more mindful. The Zaballeen aren’t held up as deities for our self-loathing and admiration; we’re allowed to look them in the eye, to see them as human.
So why isn’t Garbage Dreams, which won a number of awards at various film festivals worldwide, more exciting? For one, it’s the rare picture that could stand to be longer. At 79 minutes, we’re introduced to this world for a compelling first act, only to unavoidably wind up trailing in circles as the Zaballeen confront the city of Cairo for abandoning them. These people continually voice moments or aspects of their lives that you hope to see for yourself, such as fiancées they can’t marry until they’re able to build apartments. A promising parallel to American life isn’t quite allowed to build here: how the Zaballeen reinforce their sense of themselves with money like mainstream societies, only on a more necessarily immediate level. We wonder about the personal life of Laila, the social worker and a teacher at the Recycling School: What is the personal toll of her and others’ commitments, and how much of this community passion represents ideal versus plain-simple need? These sorts of details, which challenge and enrich traditional empathies and make for a great movie, are more present than usual in Garbage Dreams, but not present enough.
Unfortunately, a problem with movies such as Garbage Dreams persists: They speak to the already converted. To reach further, we need details, originality. We need someone with the purity of intentions that these issues require wedded to the heart of a natural showman.