Documentary. Dir/prod: Engi Wassef. Egypt, 2008, 70 mins
At first glance this HD-CAM-shot documentary might seem dismal: 11-year-old Marina and her irrepressible siblings live on an inhabited rubbish dump outside Cairo. Yet Engi Wassef’s part-Tribeca-funded feature manages to be oddly life-affirming amidst the squalor.
This is no grim, heavy-handed tragedy - rarely has a soundtrack contained more genuine laughter, or a squabbling family shown more love. Marina and her clan are Zabbaleeen, garbage collectors who process and recycle 2,000 tonnes of fetid rubbish every day. The Muqattem Recycling village houses 30,000 of these mostly Coptic Christians; it’s a ghastly, grim life. ‘Suffocating,’ says Marina’s mother. ‘Things were hard before so we came here - but here it’s worse, I can tell you.’
Certain scenes are hard to watch: a child plays with a dead rat; tiny feet clad in cheap, broken plastic sandals crush into discarded syringes. Yet nobody here is seeking pity, and seeing Marina’s surroundings through her eager, imaginative eyes strips such thoughts from the viewer’s mind until they are left with simple reality.
Rough and ready technically, Wassef’s feature-length debut is evidently best suited to specialised audiences; festivals, human rights events etc. Theatrical exposure seems unlikely outside this arena, although it certainly should travel widely.
The points Wassef makes visually about the Zabbaleen and their threatened life as recyclers make it a valuable educational tool, although she fails to give sufficient depth to the information she dispenses on subtitles. Sequences where Marina undergoes dental treatment without anaesthetic perhaps go too far, but overall this is moving in an unexpected way. ‘I had a toothbrush,’ she explains. ‘But the rats ruined it.’ Her mother carefully cuts the hair on her crude, filthy doll, and Marina’s joy is overwhelming.
Marina of the Zabbaleen follows this delightful, serious-eyed little girl as she goes to school, plays with her three wild siblings Mina, Romani and Yousef (Marina is the only ‘calm’ one, says her mother), and faces the constant threat of eviction from their slum surroundings (‘built’ in 1969). Marina and her family recycle paper, buying it for 30 cents a kilo, sorting it and selling it on for 40 cents.
The filthy children work and play, swat the flies away, and eventually go with their loving but overwhelmed mother to her family home in the farmlands of Southern Egypt for a festival. Marina of the Zabbaleen leaves behind a real sense of the peoples’ lives it documents, and no easy response to them.
Production company/international sales
Blue Nile Productions
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