15/10/2014

Cairo Drive: the Egyptian metropolis, through jokes about its traffic

Sherif el Katsha's documentary is often funny, but sometimes they're jokes that hurt

Egypt

Cairo Drive: the Egyptian metropolis, through jokes about its traffic

When Sherif Elkatsha's long documentary Cairo Drive screened at the Netherlands - Flemish Institute in Cairo this week, one of the main characters invited for a Q&A afterwards was late. He was, of course, held up in traffic.

In this African metropolis of almost 20 million people and 14 million vehicles, Cairenes waste hours and energy every day sitting in endless traffic jams. Sherif Elkatsha's Cairo Drive is a funny film about this marvelously rule-free, yet infuriatingly stationary universe.

Here are taxis, private cars, dilapidated buses and entire families on motorbikes. There are tuk-tuks and cyclists carrying baskets of bread on their heads. All weave, improvising and out of tune, down the city's noisy, paved and unpaved arteries. In the middle, a police warden conducts, with confusing hand signals.

In his film, Elkatsha rides around the city with men who eke out a living by ferrying passengers and goods, and wealthier car owners who run their daily errands. Most swear at each other with panache, some honking their car horns to call their mothers rude names. One woman navigates the chaos, handing out cigarettes to say thank you for directions.

Cairo Drive laughs at the discrepancies between what drivers should do, and the reality on the streets. In one cleverly edited sequence, school children solemnly sing about road rules, one of them halting their miniature car in front of a classmate dressed as a traffic signal. In the next shot, a driver casually slips a young traffic warden a bribe to burn a red light. The warden grins, a little self-consciously.

But Cairo Drive is also at times deadly serious, behind all the jokes. Nonchalant disrespect for road safely may be funny, but it also causes horrific, murderous pile-ups of the ring road. And how on earth does an ambulance make its way through Cairene traffic jams? We can't fly, explains one hospital employee. 

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Cairo traffic saps on the energy and morale of drivers already weary from a dire economy. (In fact, Cairo traffic causes losses of up to 4 percent of the country's GDP, according to the World Bank.) And when traffic rules are actually applied, are they fair? One man, who lost an arm in the army, resorts to driving a taxi to survive, only to be pulled over by an overly efficient policeman who tells him that he cannot continue to do so, because his car is not adapted for a disabled driver. "Are you going to give me a job then?" the man, incensed, asks the uniformed representative of the state. It seems unlikely.

As Katsha films over a period of three years, before and after the January 2011 uprising that lead to Hosni Mubarak's fall, he catches a glimpse of Egypt in transition after the so-called Arab Spring. After Mubarak's departure, police disappear from the streets and civilians take up the position of traffic conductors around Tahrir Square. Others, imitating the policemen who usually pick on them, set up car checkpoints between neighbourhoods. 

But traffic congestion remains. 

In 2012, a bus carrying journalists to a rally in support of presidential candidate Amr Moussa (who then lost in the first round) becomes stuck, after it drives the wrong way down an unpaved, littered road in a poor Cairo neighbourhood. It's a great metaphor for the challenges lying ahead for any future government.

Cairo Drive is an amusing ride, with good music and comedy timing, about Cairo's infernal, seemingly permanent traffic. It's a celebration of Cairo's endless contradictions, and its people's good-humoured resilience. But it also subtly highlights their disappointments and frustrations.

In one brilliant sequence, Mubarak's Egypt is preparing for Obama's 2009 visit to Cairo. Along the edge of the road, walls and bridges are given a new lick of paint. (It's reminiscent of the freshly-painted facades on today's Tahrir Square. Peer to the side of some buildings, and it seems they ran out of paint.) The population is given a day off, and Cairo's streets are thus cleansed of their traffic. "It's another country!" exclaims one driver cynically, as he whizzes down gloriously empty streets. "When a president goes to America, do they empty America?"

Sherif el Kasha's documentary was awarded Best Arab Documentary at last year's Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and screened to laughs all around at the Ismailia Film Festival last June. As it continues to tour festivals, upcoming screenings are announced on its Facebook page.

Alice Hackman

 

Cairo Drive -- trailer (with English subtitles):

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