Tuk-tuk is a portrait of three young teenage boys who, instead of going to school everyday, man some of the three-wheel vehicles that are a staple of Cairo’s informal areas.
Screening as part of the Cairo International Film Festival’s parallel program of the critics film week, the 75-minute documentary has the revolution’s aftermath at its backdrop, highlighting the impact of the economic and security vacuum on their families’ livelihoods.
Romany Saad’s first feature (and first documentary) after three shorts, Tuk-tuk has gripping camera work by director of photography Hany Fakhry. Its shots are very composed, with a rich yellowish color grade, and collectively give the viewer a full picture of the lives of Tuk-tuk’s protagonists: Abdallah, Bika and Sharon (a nickname given to him by his family after the former Israeli prime minister for being loud and obnoxious).
That said, the film is far longer than its content warrants, and thus becomes repetitive, both in terms of its storytelling and imagery. It would have been a very tight, inviting and captivating short film, but in its feature length, it dwells for far too long on its themes of poverty, child labor and the limited glimpses of childhood these three boys have.
The film takes place largely on the streets near Shubra, where the boys take commuters around and avoid main streets where policemen dwell — they don’t want to risk having their tuk tuks taken or the police shattering their windshields or lights, which they say has happened several times. Because tuk tuks are illegal in several Cairo districts and licensing is both expensive and difficult, children and teenagers end up driving many of them, making a living for their families without licences.
Abdallah’s father in the film wonders why the government doesn’t recognize the tuk tuk as a form of legitimate transport like the taxis or the microbus, and tax it accordingly. “If they didn’t want tuk tuks then why did they let people import them in the first place?”
“Without tuk tuks these kids would be selling drugs on the street,” Bika’s mother says in another scene from her small apartment where more than 10 family members live. She argues that tuk tuk drivers are breadwinners for many families and provide important transport in certain neighborhoods.
Saad follows the three boys as they drive their distinctively personalized tuk tuks (with Arsenal flags, Egyptian flags, cartoon character toys and shiny stickers), blasting mahranagat. They stand up to older microbus and tuk tuk drivers who try to take potential customers from them, sit to negotiate over shisha with a tuk tuk owner they want to rent from, and talk about their financial responsibility to their families and about the political situation.
There is some opportunity for activities more suited to their age — they spend time together after their long work days playing video games and listening to the latest mahragan releases at the local internet cafe, or “al-cybar.”
At the film festival there were disapproving tuts from the audience, especially when any of the boys smoked a cigarette or hash or used foul language. Perhaps this shows how disconnected many people from privileged economic backgrounds have become from the reality that the majority of Egyptians have to live in.
One particular edit stands out in the film. The three boys walk on top of the steel-rodded roof of the Imbaba bridge, and as they climb and hop we see informal areas and the Nile Towers behind them. We hear their voices answering a question about what they dream to become. The sequence is not only visually captivating but also very moving. It shows this harsh reality these boys live in, the small freedom they get of being outside playing, and how like other children their age they still have hopes and dreams for their future.
Saad has announced that he will screen the film again in Cairo, at a date yet to be announced. Tuk-tuk premiered at HotDocs, the Canadian International Documentary Film Festival’s official competition, and has also screened at festivals in Warsaw and South Korea, as well as at London’s BBC Arabic Film Festival and the Montpellier International Festival of Mediterranean Film.