The "Zabbaleen," (from the Arabic word for trash, zabbala) are Cairo's refuse collectors and sorters, who live in an almost surreal setting on the outskirts of the megalopolis: Their world consists of mountains of decaying food and plastic bottles, a bitterly ironic contrast to the noble and ancient pyramids looming in the background nearby. Nonetheless, they form an industrious community, recycling a huge amount of the city's waste and either reselling sorted paper by the bundle or raising pigs on the rotten refuse. Unfortunately, they also must deal with toxic substances, like dirty hypodermic needles. For the children of the Zabbaleen, many of whom do not attend school, the trash heaps are their unlikely and unforgiving playgrounds. Marina is one such child. She's a beautiful, big-eyed six-year-old who, unlike her peers, attends school daily and dreams of becoming a doctor. This is a portrait of her life. Director Engi Wassef has a vision not unlike that of a child. She sees the beauty hiding in the rancid squalor of the trash dump-a patch of sunlight, a low-flying bird-and captures it. Wassef does not force the pieces of Marina's life into a narrative. Instead, she simply uses creative camera work (including Super 8 footage) to show a picture of the child's world-sitting quietly and dreaming while her mother sorts paper, defending herself from an attack by one of her three mischievous brothers. The camera is witness to not only Marina's story but that of her sweet and indulgent mother, who dreams of the bucolic life that they left behind in the countryside.
Engi Wassef (b. 1980, Cairo, Egypt) emigrated to the United States at age seven and settled in New York City. She attended Harvard University, where she received a BA in government with a minor in Arabic. Engi worked on Wall Street at Goldman Sachs before pursuing her MFA in film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. Marina of the Zabbaleen is Engi's first feature film. The film was selected by the Tribeca Film Institute's All Access program in 2006, when it was still in production.