Skip to main content

Meet the Filmmakers: Mai Iskander--'Garbage Dreams'

By Tom White

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, July 31-August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Mai Iskander, director/producer of Garbage Dreams.

Synopsis: Garbage Dreams follows three teenage boys born into the trash trade and growing up in the world's largest garbage village, on the outskirts of Cairo. It is the home to 60,000 Zaballeen--Arabic for "garbage people." Far ahead of any modern "Green" initiatives, the Zaballeen survive by recycling 80 percent of the garbage they collect. When their community is suddenly faced with the globalization of its trade, each of the teenage boys is forced to make choices that will impact his future and the survival of his community.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Mai Iskander: Shortly after graduating from New York University Tisch School of the Arts, I started working as a camera assistant for the Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (Amadeus; Ragtime). As a camera assistant, I worked on over a dozen features, such as Men in Black and As Good as it Gets, and over a hundred commercials and music videos. 

About five years later, I had the opportunity to work with the cinematographer Tami Reiker (High Art); she was the first female cinematographer I had worked for, and she really encouraged me to start shooting. I bought her trusted old (but very cranky) 16mm camera and started hiring myself out as a cameraperson.

Since then, I shot numerous shorts, TV shows for A&E, PBS and LOGO, commercials and documentaries. I had the opportunity to work with some great documentary filmmakers, such Academy Award nominees Edet Belzberg and Albert Maysles.  

I worked as a cinematographer much of the time I was producing Garbage Dreams. That's how I supported myself and funded part of my film. Whenever I ran into an obstacle, either from the creative side or the producing side of things, I was able see how other filmmakers approached that same obstacle. This was invaluable to me to help me navigate through the filmmaking process.

IDA: What inspired you to make Garbage Dreams?

MI: Garbage Dreams is a labor of love that took four years to make. I filmed three teenage boys who were born into the trash trade, growing up and becoming men. This documentary is a 20th-century coming-of-age story that takes place in the one of the most unlikely places--the world's largest garbage village. It is home to 60,000 Zaballeen, Arabic for "garbage people."

Growing up as an Egyptian-American, I often visited my extended family in Egypt. When I was a young teenager, friends of my family brought me to the garbage village on the outskirts of Cairo, to attend a local wedding. It was a world folded onto itself: an impenetrable labyrinth of narrow roadways camouflaged by trash. Garbage was piled three stories high and the smell of rotting vegetables permeated the waste-covered streets. Amidst the crowded rooftops, goats, pigs and chicken grazed on remnants of waste, while the children played on a mountain of multi-colored rags. Some visitors have described it as "Dante's inferno."

I remember at the time feeling that this place was extraordinary, exotic and overwhelming. Everything seemed strange and everyone seemed like a stranger. But what was most unexpected was how warm and inviting everyone was. 

By 2005, I returned to the garbage village and started volunteering at the local neighborhood school, The Recycling School. The teachers and students really impressed me. Despite their difficult and impoverished life, they were extremely proud in their way of life and their history--and they should be.

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.

Unfortunately, in 2003, never having recognized these strikingly high recycling rates and following globalization trends, Cairo decided to hire three foreign waste companies to clean up its overpopulated mega-city of 18 million people. This Zaballeen community of 60,000 was slowly losing its livelihood.

Of course, as a filmmaker, I quickly saw potential for a story, but it was the teenagers who really drew me in. In addition to the fact that their way of life and community was in jeopardy, these kids were also facing typical teenage concerns: fashion, pop music and their workout routine, and their aspirations to be the coolest and most popular.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MI: One of the greatest obstacles in making Garbage Dreams was getting people used to the camera. I spent many hours filming the boys (I filmed over 250 hours of footage.),  documenting all the nuances of their lives. At the beginning, they did not quite understand what exactly I was filming. I decided to give the boys at The Recycling School a video camera so they could better understand the filmmaking process.

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. They listened intently to my instructions, making sure they understood every aspect of the camera. 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 shot by the kids themselves.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MI: In 2005, when I was volunteering at The Recycling School, I helped the students paint murals on the outside of their school. One day, I decided to bring my camera and film the students just for fun. Initially, I was just going to edit a little video for them as a present. One of the boys who later became a major subject in my film, Osama, started bragging to his friends that an "international film crew"--in actuality, it was just myself and my camera--was making a movie on him in order to document his incredibly charismatic self. Neighbors and friends immediately started calling him "Tommy Cruise."

Now that I had "Tommy Cruise" in the movie, I just had to turn this film into a feature. I returned to the garbage village for a couple of months over the course of four years. It was rewarding to be part of their lives as these boys grew up and became young men, and it was pretty cool to be able to capture that all on camera.

Over four years, I was able to document the different aspects of these teenagers' lives: their enthusiasm for any new adventure, their longing to find love and acceptance, their desire to make a mark in the world, and their desire to hold onto and develop their trade.

IDA:  As you've screened Garbage Dreams-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MI: On the surface, it might seem that Garbage Dreams deals with local concerns, but the themes in the film are universal. I am pleased that 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. 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 (and unexpected) that Al Gore personally chose Garbage Dreams as the winner for his REEL Current Award. It meant a lot to me to receive the recognition from the subject of a film (An Inconvenient Truth) that has inspired so many people to take better care of our planet. 

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MI: I love all of the Maysles' movies and their cinema vérité approach to documentary filmmaking. I followed that approach when I was filming. Once I started editing, the film seemed to create itself.

Garbage Dreams will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in Los Angeles, click here.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.