by Soha El Sirgany
photos courtesy of Sherief El Katsha
Directed by Egyptian filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha, Cairo Drive is a documentary portrait of the capital – a survey of Cairene life explored through the city’s raucous streets. It opens with the statement that “Cairo is an essay in entropy,” and from there begins the journey of re-discovering a Cairo that we are all-too familiar with.
Elkatsha began working on Cairo Drive in 2009, and what started as a small crowd-funded project grew until its 2013 premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, where it claimed the award for Best Film From the Arab World in the documentary films competition.
Shot over the span of three years, the film gathers footage from before, during, and after the 2011 revolution, giving viewers a chance to witness and reflect on a critical time in the country’s history.
Driving through the streets of Cairo – a daily nightmare for around eight million people – is tackled with Egyptians’ favorite defense mechanism: humor. The documentary pushes this along and sets a lighthearted tone by opening with snippets of a standup comedy show, before taking viewers on a bumpy journey through the crowded streets. Elkatsha rides through Cairo in different vehicles and interviews strangers and friends as they get behind the wheel; one of his interviewees, standup comedian George Azmy, describes driving as an ordeal and compares it to a classic video game called Frogger.
The different drivers share their stories, their complaints, their jokes, and, as the camera goes from one to the other, it is almost like trying to reconcile all the parties involved in one big jumble of misunderstanding, entitlement, and frustration.
Elkatsha’s intention was not, however, to solve Egypt’s traffic problems, but rather to use driving as a medium or a window to peer into society and its different segments.
“I set out to make a film about daily life in Egypt, and driving was something that touched most people’s lives – it’s everyone’s subject,” says Elkatsha in an interview with Community Times.
Though the primary language is Arabic, many of the characters speak a mixture of Arabic and English – something the filmmaker is happy to show as a truthful reflection of the metropolis’ linguistic mixture.
The film presents a kaleidoscope of micro-stories, from attempts to acquire a license and futile driving schools, to asking for directions on the street and the secret language of honk-cursing and its etiquettes. Humor is featured prominently, and the audience laughs at the absurd accident of a woman crashing into a refrigerator.
Not all accidents are as humorous, however. In one shot, we see five young boys chuckling invincibly as they ride crowded on a single motorbike, and the next cut shows an ambulance firing its emergency sirens.
When a father shares the story of how he lost his daughter in a bus accident, we are quickly reminded not to laugh too soon. Though good humor prevails, Cairo Drive is also a poignant reminder of the looming dangers of Cairo’s streets.
“The frustrations of traffic serve as a beautiful metaphor for the general state of the country,” says Elkatsha.
Throughout the film, a serious undertone contrasts with the humor on screen; there is also contrast in the rules within the chaos, and the words of a police officer contrast sharply with the reality on the streets.
A traffic officer talks about how schools dutifully teach students traffic laws, and when Elkatsha takes us into a school, we see children singing a catchy song about traffic lights; in the end, we are left wondering if learning those lyrics is enough to save Cairo’s future from an eternal traffic jam.
Set against a backdrop of the city’s corruption, a skilled montage leads us between conversations and scenes, flowing smoothly but with deliberation and intention in their order, leaving the irony for the audience to appreciate.
Funnily, Elkatsha found editing the film in Cairo to be problematic, as living within the traffic and then working on the footage turned out to be double the trouble; instead, he took breaks to edit in New York, where he currently lives.
Just as impromptu as the city’s traffic rules, the 2011 uprisings came as a surprise, and, halfway through editing, they left Elkatsha wondering if his footage had become outdated and irrelevant.
“I had captured the street right before its boiling point,” he says, noting that it was then that he realized the value of his time capsule.
Using it to his advantage, Elkatsha returned to shoot some more in Cairo, sometimes revisiting old characters and catching up on what happened in their lives, all the while driving around and capturing the echoes of the revolution on the streets.
With the film touring internationally for the past year, some Egyptians living abroad have been disheartened with it for showing what they see as the ugly side of Egypt to the world.
“I feel that I’m actually showing Egyptians at their best. How they could be struggling through difficulties, yet still manage to laugh and joke and make do with what they have,” Elkatsha says.
While local audiences may view the film as a series of inside jokes that they can relate to and exchange casually in coffee shops, Elkatsha notes that he has received positive reactions from foreign audiences as well.
“They appreciate the film’s very human, three-dimensional portrayal of Egyptian people – a profile they are unused to seeing in the media,” he says.
Although the film touches on familiar topics, it continuously offers new perspectives. Never failing to entertain, it remains fresh throughout.
The aptly chosen music merges with the sounds of the city at times, and oriental drumbeats embrace the uproar of car honking; at other times, classic orchestral symphonies override the scenes, providing a romantic contrast with the chaos on screen and, ultimately, producing a comical effect.
Cairo Drive is Elkatsha’s fourth film and the most recent addition to his nine-year career in filmmaking. In 2006, he directed Butts Out – a comic documentary that follows five characters over three years as they struggle to quit smoking. In 2007, he directed Egypt: We are Watching You, a documentary about the political activist group Shayfenko, and two years later, he was a cinematographer for director Mikala Krogh’s film Cities on Speed – Cairo Garbage; Elkatsha also directed and shot a short documentary about the architectural restoration of Old Cairo.
While it may seem that Elkatsha is tackling Egypt’s troubles one by one, his documentaries essentially try to capture life as it is.
“Living between New York and Cairo has given me an interesting vantage point, where I can see things from the outside from here and there,” he says.
We can expect to see more from Elkatsha, whose vantage point has proven to be relevant to audiences from both east and west.