Two Israeli filmmakers went to the Hebron Hills to document Palestinians eking out a living from scavenging in a dump, and fell in love with their subjects.
By Yitzhak Laor | Aug.03, 2012

Initially, I was afraid that “Zevel Tov” (“Good Garbage” ), a documentary produced and directed by Ada Ushpiz and Shosh Shlam, would be just another story about the atrocities of the occupation. At the very least, it would be an effort to prove that there is an occupation, despite the argument by emeritus Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, who headed a committee that declared that the West Bank is not occupied territory.

I was wrong. This is a truly blood-chilling film. True, the horrors of the occupation are present in every frame; still, this is an excellent film that should be seen because of the magnificent qualities it shares with, for example, Maxim Gorky’s writings.

I’m not referring to didacticism – there’s none of that in “Good Garbage.” Nor am I referring to a tendency to pick at existing wounds. Rather, I’m referring to the directors’ unique ability to see people – mothers, fathers and children – who live so near to us, yet inhabit our world’s nether regions. Living in squalor and degradation, they are forced to eke out a living by rummaging through garbage. And they put us to shame while living under the military dictatorship of the past 45 years.

The film revolves around an unauthorized garbage dump on the outskirts of the Palestinian village of Yatta in the Hebron Hills. Hundreds of residents derive their livelihood from the rubbish brought there from settlements and nearby Palestinian villages.

From dawn – sometimes even before dawn – dozens of “workers,” most of them children, eagerly await the arrival of the settlers’ garbage trucks. They then compete with each other as they search for soda cans, broken-down television sets and other metal of all kinds. The “good garbage” comes from the settlement of Kiryat Arba near Hebron; it includes clothing and electrical appliances.

Maybe I should mention here that Yatta’s residents used to work in Israel. In 1991, work began on the “invisible” separation fence: That’s when Palestinians were first prevented from working in Israel, a practice that was bolstered by the Oslo Accords with the division of the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. A decade later the fence became a real barrier of concrete and metal.

The impoverished village was hit hard by unemployment. In the film we see and hear what Ushpiz, the narrator, calls the “third generation of the occupation”: a generation that has lost faith in the prospect of ever leading a free life. In the middle of shooting, officials from the Hebron municipality, accompanied by representatives of the World Bank, show up with a plan to turn the dump into a garbage-recycling site. In that way they would “save” the children. The film documents the World Bank’s Good Samaritan attempt to end a bad situation and found a cooperative. The film’s creators trace the collapse of this attempt.

Documentaries feature the magic of filmmaking in general and the director’s immense freedom in particular. Documentary directors aren’t chained to a screenplay and thus are free to move around and learn about the world on the job, as it were.

What’s so wonderful about filmmaking is the abundance that hits the viewers, as if the entire world were invited to enter though a window into our own narrow lives.

Many nonfiction filmmakers work in the ever-expanding market of festivals and documentary television channels. Some of them replicate what we already know. Their teachers tell them to make films in the first person. (“I had my first period while visiting my grandmother over the summer” or “My father went off to reserve duty and I took care of my younger brother.”)

Only a few documentary filmmakers are determined to turn their movies into artistic creations. For instance, “Shtikat Ha’archion” (“A Film Unfinished” ), written and directed by Yael Hersonski, focuses on a film shot by the Germans in the Warsaw Ghetto. Hersonski created a work whose reflective dimension – the question of what is a documentary film – is more important than the subject of the Holocaust as documentary material.

Pity becomes hatred

But Ushpiz is too political a person to deal with reflections. “Good Garbage” is a film in love; Ushpiz comes to the poor villagers of Yatta and falls in love with them.

In the film, we hear neither Ushpiz’s voices nor Shlam’s; the dialogue is in Arabic, usually the dialect of the southern West Bank. Although we don’t see the settlements, we see their metonymy, the huge amount of garbage from which the villagers, both adults and children, seek to extract a livelihood.

The film’s directors take pains to avoid expressing pity for the victims of Israeli colonialism. That emotion is poison because, in the final analysis, it nurtures an attitude that is not humane. Whoever has spent three or four decades in the pro-Palestinian left is familiar with the masses of “traitors” – namely, activists who, for a variety of reasons, have developed callousness and moral fatigue. What is particularly noticeable is the speed with which pity becomes hatred: hatred for the weak members of society, hatred for those who do not display a grateful attitude toward those who pity them, hatred for what pricks the conscience of people who finally realize that they are incapable of offering genuine help.

Ushpiz and Shlam do not fall into this trap; similarly, they wisely skirt any political discussion of the occupation. The film lets the images speak for themselves and that is why it can be considered a wonderful artistic creation. The images stubbornly cling to Yatta’s residents as they rummage through the garbage, quarreling, crying, as they walk home back to their village, as they are exploited by other Palestinians. We see a woman as she helps her husband wash up thoroughly, shampooing his hair and washing his feet for him, or the woman who tries to encourage her son as he bewails the grimness of his life (“The sun just kills me,” 11-year-old Harun tells his mother in a quiet voice, at the end of a day in which he has earned NIS 20 ).

Or the father who, in the midst of this wasteland, provides his son with dry, quiet, gentle words of encouragement as he promises him that the world is moving forward: His own parents never beat him or humiliated him, and he himself has never lifted a hand against his own son. That is why, the father advises his son in the middle of the garbage dump, he must do well in his studies so that he can leave this kind of life behind.

The man is counseling his son in the midst of this horror, a hellish world of heat, rain and filth where the best one can hope for is to earn a few shekels for a day’s work. It is a world where Yatta’s residents eagerly pounce on the treasure brought by the garbage truck arriving from Kiryat Arba, as they search for old clothes, torn shoes and, of course, various metals.

From the conversations between the villagers emerges the unique human courage not only to survive amid this garbage, but to remain clean, even pure. This is what Harun’s mother tells him, to make him stop crying and so that he will keep up this day-to-day struggle in the garbage dump.

“You must be courageous and wise,” she says to him, speaking softly. “That will make the Jews eat their hearts out, because then they will see that you are actually doing something, that a Palestinian is capable of doing things, that the Palestinians whose lands they occupy and whose lives they are trying to destroy are actually doing something. Don’t be afraid of them; only the strong survive.”

She urges him to be patient, to bring home used clothes from the dump and thus help the family, so that they can send his elder sister to college. The skill with which Ushpiz and Shlam tell these human stories without offering any explanations, without conducting any formal interviews, is amazing. In one scene after another, we view a variety of families. A letter arrives from a father who is serving a prison sentence for having killed a settler. Since only his daughter is literate, it she who must read out to her young mother his passionate love letter, written behind prison walls. Seeing his mother crying, her son tries to comfort her: “This is the last letter he will have to send you from there.” In other words, he is telling her, my father will soon be released from prison. But does anybody really believe that he will soon be a free man?

Or, for example, a family discusses the humiliation that the father has generated for all of them after he sold his lands to settlers; he too is serving a prison sentence – in a prison run by the Palestinian Authority.

In another scene, we see one of the mothers visiting her family in Jordan after the authorities, over the course of an entire decade, refused to guarantee her that, following such a visit, she would continue to be permitted to see her children again. Her husband, a university graduate, asks her if she told her family in Jordan how he makes his living. She didn’t have the courage to tell her parents, but she did reveal the secret to her sisters.

From all these human dramas, from all the pain and the tears, what emerges is a despair that is yet intertwined with a stubborn determination to pull oneself out of this life of poverty. The children continually hear from their parents how important it is to get a good education. We constantly hear the parents and children talking about doing well on exams. In the background, we can see the lights of the West Bank settlement of Carmel.

Yatta is the poor man’s lamb in the parable appearing in 2 Samuel 12:1-7; Yatta is the story that former Supreme Court Justice Levy does not understand. It is the vineyard of Naboth coveted by Ahab.