The unloading of yet another truckload of garbage. The metal machine opens and out comes a truckload of plastic bottles, rotten vegetables, household waste, old scrap metal and other objects typically found in a pile of garbage.

Steffen Moestrup
Regular critic in ModernTimes.review and NY TID, the Monthly Norwegian newspaper. He is also doing his PhD in Aarhus, Denmark.

The Hebron Hills garbage dump serves the surrounding Israeli settlements and is a source of an eked-out livelihood for 200 Palestinian families from in and around the Palestinian village of Yatta. The stories of eleven-year-old Harun, seventeen-year-old Ibrahim, forty-year-old Yusuf, and sixty-yearold Badawi, expose a daily struggle for subsistence in an inescapable reality of occupation. These are the children of the Occupation who were born after 1967 and have never known any other reality. The violent daily struggle for every scrap of metal in the dump distracts from other everyday pains: a son who sold land to the Jews, a woman who cannot reunite with her family in Jordan, a father serving a life sentence in an Israeli prison, and illiterate parents who push their children to work in the dump while simultaneously holding onto the dream of seeing them break out of this vicious cycle and completing a high-school degree. For the average person in the village of Yatta, who has lost all faith in politics, personal success and education have become weapons against the Occupation; weapons that might extricate them from the suffocating trap of the garbage dump, both literally and figuratively.

Just next to the truck is yet another group of avid treasure-hunters, waiting for the garbage to leave the truck and hit the ground where the search can begin. We believe it to be survival of the fittest. A daily struggle to find the best pieces in the piles of garbage. And perhaps it is so. But in Shosh Shlam and Ada Ushpiz’s movie Good Garbage there seems to be an unwritten agreement about who gets what. When a pile of garbage leaves the truck the men seem to divide it between them. We don’t see any arguments, we don’t see any fights. At least not at first.

a truckload of plastic bottles, rotten vegetables, household waste, old scrap metal

Some documentary films have an amazing ability to enter foreign and unknown environments and let the viewer enter these environments for a few minutes, perhaps even an hour or two. This is one of the highest tasks of a good documentary. To open our eyes and let us see things, people and places that we do not normally see. And this is exactly the strength of Good Garbage. The many scenes at the garbage dump are the true triumph of the film. With Danor Glazer’s intelligent cinematography we cannot avoid engaging in this strange environment. Many scenes are well composed and now and then we even get an almost abstract yet majestic shot filled with graphic lines of the desert, the dump and the people.

an almost abstract yet majestic shot filled with graphic lines of the desert, the dump and the people

But Good Garbage is never just a formalistic or aesthetic experiment. It also wants to grasp an important piece of reality. And here the film suffers somewhat. While the scenes in the garbage dump are strong both visually and narratively, the scenes outside the dump lack both of these strengths. As a viewer I don’t get dragged into the story about Ibrahim who one day escapes from school and his homeland on the West Bank, enters Israel illegally and later comes back to continue his studies. Nor do I get especially involved in the story about the son who sold Palestinian land to Jews. I believe the two directors have placed these stories in the film in order to expand the dump environment, to give reality a greater impact. Unfortunately, I feel the film’s impact is weakened by these stories and would have liked the film to stay in the dump where many things are actually going on.

good-garbage-5As said, there is no fighting between the dump workers early in the film but later on things change at the dump. The World Bank decides to turn the dump into a recycling unit and part of this plan involves dividing the workers into different co-operatives that will be responsible for different types of garbage. At first, you would believe this to be a good idea. To formalise things, create a structure. But according to the film, things start to go wrong after the World Bank interferes.

The men start to argue, even to fight. We see a hierarchy being formed. A hierarchy that makes the people work against each other rather than together. The co-operative soon makes enemies, and those who are against it are expelled from the dump. Thus people are grouped into right and wrong. Soon it’s every man for himself.

Eventually the co-operative falls apart and the situation at the dump returns to a degree of normalcy. Still we have a feeling that something is different from before. This is probably due to the editing of the film. At first, we saw how families gathered around the father when he returned home from the dump, the family excited to see what he carried. Also, we saw a family united in the work of repairing a mountain of shoes in their living room. These parents work with their children unlike in most Western countries – where we park our children in factorylike institutions and then work on our own or with other adults. Let’s not romanticise the situation: of course it is hard work to be a dump worker – both before and after the co-operative.


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