Editor's Note: This one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films will be screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.
Director: Mai Iskander
Filmed over four years, the film follows three teenage boys born into the trash trade and growing up in the world's largest garbage village. Each boy chooses a different path when their community is suddenly faced with the globalization of their trade. [Courtesy of SXSW]
"Garbage Dreams" will screen in the Documentary Feature Competition.
Please introduce yourself…
My name is Mai Iskander. I produced and directed the documentary feature entitled "Garbage Dreams." It is an official selection for this year's SXSW 2009 documentary competition.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
I loved going to watch movies as a teenager so I decided to go to film school. While at film school at NYU, I was given the opportunity to work with the Oscar® nominated cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek ("Amadeus"). I soon joined the camera union and went to work as a camera assistant to a cinematographer.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
As an Egyptian-American, growing up I had often visited my extended family in Cairo. When I was a young teenager, friends of my family brought me to Mokattam, the garbage city on the outskirts of Cairo to attend a local wedding. Amid the crowded rooftops, goats, geese and chicken grazed on remnants of waste. Garbage was piled three stories high, while the children played on a mountain of multi-colored rags.
Then, Cairo, a city of 18 million, had no city wide waste disposal system. For generations, residents depended on the Zaballeen, Egypt's "garbage people," to collect their trash. The Zaballeen made a living by recycling the city's garbage. Everyday, the Zaballeen would bring the city's garbage back to their neighborhood - their "garbage city."
Years later, in 2005, I returned to Mokattam and volunteered to help paint a mural at the neighborhood's Recycling School. I filmed a few of the students — applying vibrant colors and making whimsical pictures on a drab concrete wall — thinking that I could cut together a little film about their mural as a present for them.
And in front of the camera, the students blossomed. They were uninhibited and were extremely pleased that an “outsider” took such interest in them. Most of all, they were proud of their way of life and their history. And like typical teenagers, they wanted to show off their fashion sense, their workout routine and their music - always wanting to outdo each other.
We became fast friends. The students later confided in me how difficult things were becoming for their families financially. The whole community was starting to feel the recent globalization of its trade.
A while back, Cairo had hired foreign companies to start collecting Cairo's trash. The Zaballeen's jobs were slowly being outsourced. The 10,000 tons of trash that the city of Cairo generated each day and which the Zaballeen depended on for their survival would be buried.
It was then that I decided to start filming the story of the Zaballeen.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.
While I feel that the globalization of the trash trade is an important social story to tell, it is the personal stories of the teenagers that really interests me. In a sense, the survival of the community depends on the younger generation's actions in response to the recent threat to their community's way of life. Each of the teenage boys I filmed is forced to make choices that will impact his future and the survival of his community.
Adham clings to his dreams as if a matter of life and death, unable to reconcile his dreams with that his community is losing all their garbage. Osama wants to be accepted and admired, and to wear the right "outfit" as we all secretly do. In the end, he starts working for the multinational waste company and dons on their green uniform. And Nabil longs for the tenderness of a family.
I spent over 250 hours filming this trio of teenagers, documenting all the nuances of their life: their enthusiasm for any new adventure; their longing to find love and acceptance; their desire to make a mark in the world; and their aspirations to be the alpha male - the coolest and most popular of all of the desires that are so strong in us as teenagers and that remain with us as adults.
One always learns more about a person by filming them. You can zoom in close up on someone's face to catch a nervous laugh, or discover people secret habits. But I think by filming the three boys, I learned more about myself: my desires; my struggles; my doubts; and my improbable dreams. This is what emboldened and encouraged me through the trials and tribulations of making "Garbage Dreams."
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
"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 become acclimated to being filmed for long periods of time and getting them to understand the filmmaking process. One of the things I did to accomplish this was lending the boys a small video camera so that could film themselves. This provided the boys with a sense of ownership, in 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. Five minutes of "Garbage Dreams" was filmed by the boys themselves.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
While it is always great to get positive reviews from critics, I think what is ultimately most important to me as a filmmaker is that "Garbage Dreams" moves viewers to take action in their life, whether it is thinking twice about where their trash is going and how it affects other people on this earth or whether it is directly helping out the Zaballeen community with resources.
What are your future projects?
Making a film requires lots of hard work and perseverance. I think what inspired me to put so much effort and dedication into "Garbage Dreams" is my love of the film's topic and the characters in it. I haven't found anything that has moved me like that as yet. But I am sure something is right around the corner.