Many protagonists were deployed by Egypt’s New Realism cinematic wave to counter the infitah (open door policy) of the 1970s, but there was only one bus driver.
Atef al-Tayeb’s Sawwaq al-Autobees (Bus Driver, 1982) is not only one of his most mature works but also one of New Realism’s most radical examples. One scene explains it all. Hassan (Nour al-Sherif), a middle-class October War veteran, is a bus driver by day and a cabby by night. He has traveled to Port Said to seek financial assistance from his sister and her husband in order to pay late taxes, which were ignored on purpose, to save the workshop his father (Emad Hamdy in his last acting role) owns from being expropriated by the government.
In the city that was the once a den of guerrilla resistance and anti-colonialism, he sits at a table eating hard-to-find shrimp and drinking Pepsi from cans. His brother-in-law (Waheed Seif), a typical Port Said trader who made a fortune from the new free trade policies, pours Hassan a glass of liquor. He pours in excess and the glass overflows, a sign of uncontrollable consumption and materialism, yet refuses to help collect the tax money.
This scene is one of many in Hassan’s struggle to collect the money. He also travels all the way to Damietta — an area of the country that is rarely filmed — to another sister, who is now married to a religious businessman who doesn’t mind taking high interest or making profits from the misfortunes of others. Hassan gets rejected again, and insulted by this brother-in-law (Ali al-Ghandour), who is only willing to help if he gets a share — or the whole workshop. He later excuses himself to pray.
Contrasting a street trader who serves imported cognac to his sons at lunch and a fat-cat Islamist businessman who leaves a discussion for prayer, Tayeb doesn’t shy from hinting that reactionary, selfish characters exist in many contexts.
Yet there are no villains, only elements in the plot that hinder the protagonist in a revolutionary crescendo. The conflict in the cleverly tailored script doesn’t have to, or doesn’t want to, rely on a direct opponent, but rather on Hassan’s struggle with different social groups and traits: parasites, consumerists, bureaucracy and, most of all, greed.
Through symbolism, both the father and his once-prosperous workshop are no longer simply an owner of capital and a place of labor, but the homeland Hassan once defended as a soldier.
The film, produced a year after the assassination of former President Anwar al-Sadat and written by fellow realist filmmakers Mohamed Khan and Bashir al-Deek, put Sadat’s infitah policy on trial by casting a harsh light on the decay of the very middle class that strove to come to the surface in the 1960s, and that paid the price for every war Egypt got involved in. Hassan fought in the 1967 and the 1973 wars, but returned from the front shocked by what had changed.
The acting in The Bus Driver relies on simple yet marginalized characters. Bus drivers are seen in many films but are rarely given a platform to express their daily lives on the silver screen. Tayeb perfected the trend of giving unheard voices a chance to shout out loud. Nour al-Sherif’s acting is angry and violent. He doesn’t spare a chance to physically take matters into his own hands to confront the crooks, a phenomenon New Realism endorsed to help protagonists survive in a dog-eat-dog era.
Hassan is romantic and loving only when he remembers “the old days” when cuddling his wife (Mervat Amin) or chatting with his former brothers-in-arms, remembering nights in the trenches waiting to cross the canal.
This dialectic between violence and romance is accompanied by splendid a soundtrack by Kamal Bakeer, who composed the feeling of Hassan’s sorrow. The dismay of a veteran who leaves the front victorious only to face street fights at home can be heard.
Although a simple plot helped make the film commercially successful, it includes many sophisticated compositions. Cinematographer Saeed Shimi has always preferred a liberated, mobile camera, transferring the chaotic environment of a random bus ride in the streets of Cairo. Sometimes, Shimi’s shaky camera doesn’t capture dialogue and interaction but only facial expressions, or with a wide lens it gathers as many details as possible: the passengers’ rush to get into the bus and get a seat, the chaotic nature of a street market in Port Said, the flow of imported goods and people’s chatter about traveling to the Gulf, and the faces of a dysfunctional family.
As Hassan thrives, he spots comrades willing to assist him in his hardship. He discovers his third, educated sister who has just come from the Gulf and her intellectual husband, as well as his loyal assistant on the bus and his former brothers-in-arms. But most importantly, he discovers himself.
At the beginning of the film Hassan is infected by the apathy of others. When a pickpocket steals from a woman, he initially stops the bus but continues under pressure from passengers running late. At the end, with his eyes open and his consciousness aware, he stops the bus and runs in the street to chase down another pickpocket who has stolen from a passenger.
The finale — which doesn’t give away the conclusion of the plot — shows the collaboration of two brilliant minds. Khan’s finales, like that of Supermarket and Hend and Camellia’s Dreams, are full of symbolism, while Tayeb’s are more shocking and explosive, like that of The Innocent and The Escape.
The end of The Bus Driver is mostly explosive. The thief (who is featured on the film’s poster) is irrelevant to the struggle to regain the workshop. Some might argue that he is awkwardly stuck into the script. But Tayeb, the believer in humanity that he is, gives his characters a chance to change and become better humans, despite their material loss.
A slow-motion finale, the best in Egypt’s cinema history, draws Hassan, echoing the scream of a generation that is victorious on the outside and defeated on the inside, punching the thief five times while yelling “sons of bitches.”
One punch for materialist pragmatism.
Another for the infitah fat cats.
Another for the Islamist investors and the nouveau riche.
Another for governmental bureaucracy.
Another for all who stole his and his generation’s dreams.