The Making Of

Director/producer/cinematographer Mai Iskander talks about footage in GARBAGE DREAMS that was filmed by the teenagers themselves, Adham's fans, and Al Gore's recognition.

Independent Lens: What impact do you hope this film will have?

Mai Iskander: I hope that after seeing this film, people will think twice before they throw out their garbage. Our waste is a valuable resource that when treated properly has the potential to benefit future generations.

The Zaballeen have created the world's most effective resource recovery system, recycling 80 percent of everything they collect. They are actually saving our Earth from out of the trash. They lifted themselves out of poverty and have a solution to the world's most pressing crisis. It is time that their voices are finally heard. I hope that GARBAGE DREAMS helps to increase awareness about these natural entrepreneurs.

IL: What led you to make this film?

MI: In 2003, never having recognized the strikingly high recycling rates of the Zaballeen, Cairo decided to follow globalization trends and hire three foreign waste companies to clean up its overpopulated mega-city of 18 million people. The Zaballeen community of 60,000 was slowly losing its livelihood.

As a filmmaker, I quickly saw potential for a story, but what really drew me in was the teenagers I met at the garbage village’s local Recycling School. Despite their difficult and impoverished life, they were extremely proud of their way of life and their history. In addition to the fact that their community was in jeopardy, these kids were also facing typical teenage concerns: fashion, pop music, their workout routine, and their aspirations to be the coolest and most popular. I quickly realized that what would shed the most light on the issues surrounding their trade and its recent globalization was their personal stories.

IL: What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

MI: GARBAGE DREAMS took a lot of patience. Since it was a coming of age story, the film was about capturing the most revealing character “moments.” And as a filmmaker, one can never predict when that will happen.

Another challenge was helping people to feel comfortable in front of the camera.

IL: How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

MI: I quickly realized that the most effective way of gaining the trust of the film’s characters was by helping them understand the filmmaking process. I decided to give the boys at the Recycling School a small one-chip video camera so they could film themselves. I was hoping that this would also provide the boys a sense of ownership, so that in some way, they were the authors of their own stories.

I was blown away by their photographic ability and the intimacy of their footage. I included much more of their footage than I had originally planned.

IL: What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

MI: On the surface, it might seem that GARBAGE DREAMS deals with local concerns, but the themes in the film are universal. This is what strikes a chord with most viewers.

Adham, one of the teenage boys in the film, attended the premiere of GARBAGE DREAMS at SXSW in March 2009. After one of the screenings, he was swarmed by a bunch of teenage girls — they were all fighting to get his autograph. I never would have expected that! Of course, Adham loved all the attention.

It was also very rewarding that Al Gore personally chose GARBAGE DREAMS as the winner for his REEL Current Award. It meant a lot to me to receive recognition from the driving force behind the film An Inconvenient Truth, which has inspired so many people to take better care of our planet.

IL: Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

MI: It’s hard to imagine a better venue for GARBAGE DREAMS where a large audience will see the film. The more people who see it, the more people might think differently of their trash and the people that are responsible for disposing of it.

IL: What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

MI: Paying my personal bills.

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