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MARINA OF ZABBALEEN: THE INDICTMENT OF THE EGYPTIAN STATE مارينا الزبالين: إتهام الدولة المصرية

April 3, 2011

 

FIRST, THE BRILLIANT COPTIC DIRECTOR AND PRODUCER[i]

Engi Wassef (b. 1980)

Engi Wassef is the Coptic director, and producer, of the film Marina of the Zabbaleen. She was born in Cairo, Egypt, on July, 1980 and lived there until the age of seven.  Her family then immigrated to the U.S. and settled in New York City.  She attended Harvard University, where she received a B.A. degree magna cum laude in Government with a minor in Arabic.   Engi worked on Wall St. at the investment firm of Goldman Sachs before pursuing her MFA in film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts Graduate Program.

Marina of the Zabbaleen, Engi’s first feature film, is a documentary which is 70 mins long, and is about a young girl living in the hidden village of Christian garbage collectors in Cairo. The film was selected by the Tribeca Film Institute’s prestigious All Access Program in 2006, when it was still in production, and had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in Spring 2008.

Watch Engi Wassef in an interview by Moving Pictures on the movie Marina of the Zabbaleen:

http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=565082398189


SECOND, THE IMPORTANT CINEMATIC DOCUMENTARY[ii]

Engi documents the daily life of a little Coptic girl, Marina, who lives with her mother, and three siblings, Mina, Romani and Yousef in Moqattam Village in the outskirts of Cairo – a village populated by nearly 30,000 garbage collectors, the overwhelming majority of whom are Copts. They also recycle the garbage in an environmentally friendly and green way. They live in squalor, but the services they provide help not only to Egypt’s environment, but also to that of the world’s, and are widely acknowledged though not by the Egyptian State. The following year after the production of the documentary, the Egyptian authorities exploited the threat of the swine flu pandemic, and culled thousands of pigs which are raised by these poor Copts, and which were helping in the recycling of the collected garbage.  As Michael Smith says:[iii]

Yet, the reasons for the pig cull are based at least as much in Egypt’s religious and political context, as on scientific reasoning. In fact the H1N1 Swine Flu came just like a gift from the g0ds to the Egyptian government and using the flu as a pretext they went and had the pigs of the Zabbaleen destroyed thereby all but wiping out their way of life and making a living and the most effective waste collection, recycling and garbage disposal service about.

The pigs, and no doubt even the Zabbaleen, have been a thorn in the flesh of the Egyptian government and the government of the city of Cairo for some time; the pigs because of the Muslim fundamentalists having a problem with them and the Zabbaleen and their garbage collection and recycling because of foreign money being able to come in if spent on “proper” waste collection, that is to say by multi-nationals who are already waiting in the wings.

Watch the following Marina of Zabbaleen Trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnYvAK2La_k

After having watched the Trailer, read the experts reviews below to get to know more about the movie:

Adam Keleman, slantmagazine.com (12 September, 2009)[iv]

“At the heart of director Engi Wassef’s fly-on-the-wall doc Marina of the Zabbaleen is the playful, pony-tailed seven-year-old Marina. The middle child in a family of five, she remains joyfully spirited despite the decaying ghetto she lives in; her home rests in the Zabbaleen, one of the few Coptic Christian communities in a mostly Muslim-populated Cairo, known locally as “Garbage City.” The Zabbaleen are driven by trash up-keep (their main commodity is recycling and garbage disposal) and efficient disposal methods (they feed the garbage to the pigs), regardless of the constant, growing challenges of Cairo’s government outsourcing waste removal, which endangers the livelihood of Marina’s family and other like-minded trash-peddlers. Marina’s mother consistently worries about the rent and putting food on the table, though the monetary strain doesn’t seem to bother Marina, who gleefully swings away on a playground swing set as the wind briskly blows through her hair.

The principal strength of Wassef’s debut is its delicate, revealing look at Marina’s life—how it forgoes a more disruptive, self-referential approach (a la Michael Moore) by skillfully utilizing the camera to catch moments from these peoples’ lives as they unfold, no matter how unnerving; one significantly affecting sequence shows Marina’s landlord bullishly threatening to evict their family as Marina’s mother begs and pleads while the kids look on in a state of horror. Intermittingly employing grainy 8mm footage, the film clearly depicts the texture of the Zabbaleen as a community in trouble and a people who may not have anything left if their litter business closes up shop. Still, Marina and her family never lose faith, and despite their grim and disquieting milieu, they keep on at it, surviving life’s harshest obstacles. A portrait of the few who live off the rubbish of the affluent, Wassef’s Zabbaleen is richly observed and poignant.”

Fionnuala Halligan at screendaily.com (27 December, 2008)[v]

“At first glance this HD-CAM-shot documentary might seem dismal: 11-year-old[vi] 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.”

Steve Smith, associate Music editor, Classical & Opera, Short Review – NY[vii]

“Pigeons take wing in freewheeling circles but always return to their cages. A kite soaring serenely over a verdant field of corn turns out to be made of refuse. Symbolism runs thick in Marina of the Zabbaleen, first-time director Engi Wassaf’s look at a community of Coptic Christians who eke out a living recycling garbage and raising pigs on the outskirts of Cairo. The most omnipresent symbol is Marina herself: a good-natured, studious six-year-old girl who hopes to become a doctor. The doe-eyed girl is a sympathetic presence in a coarse, fetid environment, whose inhospitality Wassaf underscores by shooting through barred windows, door frames and alleyways. Rob Hauer’s cinematography brilliantly captures Cairo’s parched, sepia-toned afternoons, and his creative use of lens flare adds an occasional touch of psychedelic haze. Where the film falls short is in Wassaf’s failure to pursue the critical issues she glancingly raises. Is Egypt justified in its outsourcing of sanitation to foreign contractors whose methods are less eco-friendly, and what is the place of an obscure Christian community within an ever-growing Muslim majority?”

Michael Smith (Veshengro), greenreview.blogspot.com[viii]

“The release of Marína is also timely. As reported in The New York Times, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, the Los Angeles Times, and elsewhere in May 2009, in reaction to the recent swine flu outbreak, the Egyptian government ordered the slaughter of all of the country’s pigs – the vast majority of which were raised by the Coptic Christian Zabbaleen and used integrally in the first phase of the recycling process.

For almost a century, the Zabbaleen had raised pigs to consume the thousands of tons of organic waste generated daily by Cairo’s residents. The ramifications of the pig cull are far-reaching, both devastating the livelihood of this minority community and imperiling Cairo’s entire system of waste management. Cairo is the largest producer of waste on the African continent.

Yet, the reasons for the pig cull are based at least as much in Egypt’s religious and political context, as on scientific reasoning. In fact the H1N1 Swine Flu came just like a gift from the gods to the Egyptian government and using the flu as a pretext they went and had the pigs of the Zabbaleen destroyed thereby all but wiping out their way of life and making a living and the most effective waste collection, recycling and garbage disposal service about.

The pigs, and no doubt even the Zabbaleen, have been a thorn in the flesh of the Egyptian government and the government of the city of Cairo for some time; the pigs because of the Muslim fundamentalists having a problem with them and the Zabbaleen and their garbage collection and recycling because of foreign money being able to come in if spent on “proper” waste collection, that is to say by multi-nationals who are already waiting in the wings.

The problem with the way those “proper” waste collection services work, however, and some of them are already operating in the Cairo areas, is that their garbage trucks compact everything thereby making recycling of the waste impossible.

The Zabbaleen provide a service to the city of Cairo, the country of Egypt and the Planet, as their way of waste recycling does not require holes in the ground for landfill operations. All recyclables are recycled and organic waste goes into the pigs; or at least it did until the recent government actions.”

THIRD, THE INDICTMENT

The reality in which some of our nation live

The garbage collectors,[ix] and there are around 70,000 of them in Cairo area, are part of this Coptic nation. They live in adverse conditions of poverty, disease, dirt, lack of education and death. Their infant mortality rate is above 100 per thousand, well above the average rate for Egypt. There is no doubt that the Egyptian State’s failure in looking after them is the main reason for their poor conditions. Not only does it fail in its duty to improve their social and economic conditions and provide them with public services; it treats them with total disrespect, and has taken in 2009 decisions that made their already dire conditions even worse. We must not also forget its failure in protecting them in March 2011 against the attacks by Islamist thugs, which resulted in several of them dying.

That having been said, the Copts can not absolve themselves from responsibility. Despite the charity work done there, there is still much that could, and needs to, be done. Coptic nationalists must look at these brethren as a priority. They are probably the poorest of our poor. Our conscience as a nation and Church cannot rest until the lot of these Copts is improved. We must go there and provide them with services they desperately need. And we must go there to recruit members to our cause, and emphasise the fact that our nationalism has a social and economic dimension, and that every single Copt counts.

All who care about their nation’s lot cannot but watch this documentary – it forms an important part of their national education.


[iii] See his review and reference below.

[vi] Marina is actually 6-years, as the next review says.

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