Wednesday, February 17, 2010

PIFF Day 6 - "Garbage Dreams" and "Ajami"

The Egyptian documentary "Garbage Dreams" (6) depicts the Zaballeen, an impoverished community in Cairo which has for decades performed the role of the city's only garbage collectors. Though their working conditions are doubtless dangerous and unsanitary and their methods somewhat rudimentary, they manage to recycle 80% of what they collect. However, their way of life is threatened when the city (which has never contracted for garbage collection) hires foreign contractors to perform garbage collection. The new collectors in town use more modern methods, but recycle only 80% of what they collect. They let all kinds of garbage go unsalvaged and simply bury their waste in landfills.

The film provides an interesting window into a culture of forgotten and overlooked people. The community's real attachment to their role as salvage artists, and to garbage itself, is portrayed with respect and without irony. The dreams of the three teenagers who provide a focus for the film all center on what is possible in their world--owning a can cutting factory, or earning respect for wearing the uniform of the foreign garbage collection company. They have grown up in a community that is unified around the work of garbage collection, with winding alleys piled with trash and crevices stuffed with bags of refuse. Yet their attachment to that way of life is profound. So too is their isolation--because of the poorer and less presentable world they come from, what they have to teach about salvage methods is lost.

Like the other Oscar-nominated film I've seen at the festival ("A Prophet"), I had trouble connecting with "Ajami" (7), though I admired its elements. It uses mixed timelines and interlocking stories (a la "Crash" but more confusing to my American eyes) to depict life in a very rough, mostly Arab part of Jaffa, south of Tel Aviv. I had trouble keeping straight the large cast (speaking Arabic and Hebrew) and felt I was missing some of the connections just from my lack of familiarity with the setting and culture.

That said, I did appreciate the film's depiction of interlocking communities who live in close proximity but are profoundly alien from each other and are locked in pointless cycles of violence. In each of several episodes that divide the film, people (sometimes children) are abruptly and senseless killed, due to misunderstandings. Co-directed by an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian and featuring mostly non-actors working through a process of improvisation, the film neither explains nor judges the tangle of humanity it depicts. Though the film doesn't offer any hope, one wonders if there isn't at least some to be found in the fact that a group of Jews and Arabs worked together to depict this piece of the truth.

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