Our wastes reflect our lives, the things we use (and don't), the things we tire of, our needs, our impulse-purchases. But throw them all together into a bin, and they soon start to stink. That taint too often extends to the people who take them away for us. As for the `scavengers' `informal recyclers'- the millions who make a living from waste in the developing world; the human inclination to sheer away from unpleasant ideas can make us shun those people, as we shun our smelly refuse.
The triumph of this film, Garbage Dreams, is that it makes us think about them. It's based around the lives, frustrations and aspirations of four young people of the Zaballeen community in Cairo; a Coptic Christian group who have been collecting Cairo's waste since the early years of the last century and whose recycling rate is an admirable 80%. There's Laila, the serious, compassionate community social worker; we see her cajoling the workers to get tetanus injections, listening to people's troubles, chairing community meetings. There's Adham, impishly good-looking, not the easiest of people to live with - he's forever scrapping with his sisters, but intelligent and ambitious. He yearns to travel. There's Nabil, sensitive, kindly, and artistically gifted, who wants a wife who'll be his friend. And Osama, who - to the fury of his mother - can't seem to hold down a job, but feels he has a value and respectworthiness that isn't seen or understood.
The Zaballeen community is in crisis. They are seen as old-fashioned, disgraceful for a modern city and the Cairo authorities want rid of them. So new, Western companies have come in, with shiny dust-carts and men in uniform. Their contracts only oblige them to recycle 20% of what they collect; the rest ends up in a nice `hygienic' landfill. Now the Zaballeen are accused of `stealing' the refuse.
Someone asks Adham: `If you were in charge of a landfill, what would you do with the trash?' `I'd dig it all out,' he replies at once. `It's God's gift, to be recycled and re-used.' And he is the expert. Later in the film, he and Nabil are sent to Wales - to Adham's delight - to study waste management methods there (recycling rate 28%). The boys enthuse over the sophisticated machinery, but Adham is shocked to see a broken drill bit consigned to landfill. `This could be recycled!' The message is clear: these despised `scavengers' have much to teach us.
In Mokattam, the workshops buzz, shriek, stink (the smell is something you don't get from the film, but I've been there). Adham sheers the aluminium caps off the drinks cans, dreaming of a can-cutting factory of his own. Plastic is melted, extruded, turned into coloured spaghetti, chopped. In the recycling school, attended by all the boys, they learn to read, write, use computers, and do maths, all in the framework of a business, buying shampoo bottles from other Zaballeen collectors and recycling them, earning their living and learning at the same time. Child labour, yes, but they'd be illiterate child labourers without the school.
The working and living conditions of the families leave a lot to be desired, but they do their job superbly. The householders they collect from prefer them to the municipal collectors because they collect the rubbish from the door - and when they go round the households, asking their clients to separate their food wastes from the other wastes, nine out of ten are happy to do so.
Waste separation, to improve the recyclability of their gleanings, is an idea Adham brought back from Wales, it's a gleam of hope that they might yet extricate themselves from their grim situation. But the film shows them constantly fighting against despair. `The authorities don't see us.' This, fundamentally, is the challenge the film poses to us. Can we see these people? And not just in Cairo, but all over the world. Can we learn from them?
If we can't, it will cost us - and them. Nabil's engagement has been broken off because he can't afford to build an apartment to live in with his wife. Adham embarked on a degree in business studies, but has largely abandoned it because he, like all the Zaballeen, has had to work harder and harder to scrape a living. The frustration of the boys' dreams is heartbreaking. And that heartbreak is a reality as potent as any statistic.
Everyone should see this film.