Ironically enough, the roads to the Cairo premier of Sherief Elkatsha’s traffic-centered documentary Cairo Drive were not crowded at all. The special screening at Zawya on Thursday, January 8 happened on arguably one of the coldest ever days in the capital, and this scared many into staying in on the weekend’s first night.
In spite of the cold, Zawya had a full house of documentary enthusiasts and everyone cozied together in the warm theater for the 79 minutes of this fast-paced 2013 documentary in which Cairo is the star and traffic is the main event.
The screening was followed by a Q&A with the director, who previously co-directed We are Watching You (2005) with The Square‘s Jehane Noujaim and served as cinematographer for Mikala Krogh’s 2009 documentary Cairo Garbage.
“This has been a great year for the film,” Elkatsha told the crowd as he introduced Cairo Drive. “But this is its most important screening.”
Anyone who lives in, visits or passes through Cairo is immediately taken by the organized chaos that is the city’s traffic. Perhaps the best way to describe the traffic situation is “chaordic,” a balance between the chaos and order it constantly sways between.
The film, shot between 2009 and 2012, starts off with a shot of a traffic police officer organizing downtown’s heavy traffic, with Handel’s orchestral Water Music serving as soundtrack, almost turning the feat into a ballet. We are then met with several quick edits of chaotic traffic of cars, microbuses and motorcycles along with a commentary by comedian George Azmy on traffic. The music moves to drum beats by Sabrine El Hossamy and other musicians, setting up the quick cuts of the documentary to follow.
Elkatsha, also the film’s writer and producer, captures his subject brilliantly, shooting footage of the details one witnesses on Cairo’s roads from passenger seats and other vantage points, but never appearing himself.
One of his multiple protagonists shows us how to do an Egyptian ghorza (stitch) which is to swiftly use the little space between cars to overtake the car in front of you. “If there is space, occupy it,” another protagonist says. Elkatsha is shown the language of car horns, and Motaz Atalla, an education researcher, tells him that he has learned a great deal about non-violence simply through driving in Cairo.
One edit got the audience laughing uncontrollably: A character describes crossing the street as a pedestrian as being like the 1980s arcade game frogger, and following this is fast-forwarded footage of pedestrians shot in aerial view to the game’s music.
The film moves through the pre-revolution Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, first addressing traffic rules and codes, and then bringing in several voices of car, taxi and microbus drivers on the issues they face with traffic, the police and their feelings toward the country in general.
The director films the tight implementation of traffic laws introduced in 2009/2010 under then Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, when police checkpoints were placed to make sure people followed the strict safety and congestion codes. He shows how citizens haggle with policemen over fines, highlighting the general state in a country where the rule of law is negotiable.
The director interviews a lieutenant from the Interior Ministry as well as traffic police, and uses their statements against the reality on the streets to show how little is actually being done to enforce simple laws such as wearing seatbelts, not driving with children on your lap and not using cellphones while driving.
Two main characters are women, a young mother and a college student setting out to get their drivers’ licenses. The young mother is attending driving school, learning the rules and playing fair, while the young, spoilt girl is getting her license through a bribe.
“I didn’t even have to take the test,” she says. “But I would have passed it anyway.”
Even though their approaches contrast, they both end up getting into accidents.
One part in particular shows Mubarak-era corruption: Documentation of Barack Obama’s famous 2009 visit to Cairo. The film accurately represents how officials quickly cleaned up and painted and even gave a day off on that summer day. The reactions Elkatsha shows are telling: “When Obama comes, he will say: Where are the 80 million?” one driver says.
The segment on the fatality of Cairo’s traffic is perhaps the weakest in the film. While the issue is of utmost importance for a documentary of this nature, the director fails to prepare viewers for it, cutting directly from the festive, upbeat, humorous approach he’d been taking in the rest of the film, to a story told by the father of an 18-year-old girl who was killed crossing a street. This rough cut was probably intended to simulate how sudden life-taking accidents can be, but both the storytelling and visuals left several audience members more disturbed than emotionally engaged.
The fact remains though that Egypt’s roads do kill people, around 12,000 each year according to a 2012 World Health Organization statistic. Elkatsha continues to follow this topic through a young mother who accompanies her son and their driver to school in the suburbs everyday out of fear for the son’s safety.
In one scene, the director rides with ambulance drivers around the city and with taxi drivers as ambulances pass. “I would like to make room for ambulances to pass, but where do I go?” a taxi driver asks.
Elkatsha interviews ambulance drivers in their office at privately owned Salam Hospital in Maadi, where they discuss issues related to marriage, the negative social stigma of being a driver and the freedom of women in society.
Traffic is a deliberately fascinating entry point for Elkatsha to discuss the issue he actually wishes to bring to light in this film, which is how people of different classes and backgrounds cope with a tough city, its society and its politics.
So even though Elkatsha was planning to stop filming in 2010, the revolutionary events that unfolded in 2011 made him come back to Cairo, where he was raised, from New York, where he currently lives, to continue filming. He captured the traffic chaos that followed, the hopefulness of people for change, and how basically things remained the same.
The film, in Arabic and English, succeeds in representing the city’s chaordic nature in all aspects through looking at its traffic. It is a triumph for documentaries about the “city victorious” in general, and Elkatsha’s Egyptian roots combined with growing up abroad have allowed him both the outsider’s critical eye and insider’s emotional attachment to the city and its people.
Cairo Drive is also one of the very few documentaries I have seen where the audience were laughing most of the way through its screening. Elkatsha successfully represents the quirks of Egyptians’ sense of humor about their dismays in life in a film that encapsulates the highs and lows of living in Cairo during one its most intense periods in recent history.
Cairo Drive is currently screening at Zawya until Tuesday January 13, with a possible extension for another week.