Anyone who’s spent time amid the energizing chaos of Cairo knows there’s a set of rules for driving, chief of which is, “if there is space, occupy it.” Sherief Elkatsha’s boisterous docu “Cairo Drive” is a bitingly comical portrait of the capital as seen through the pandemonium of its roads, adeptly balancing wit, irony, contradiction, exasperation and fatalism — in short, the very qualities that characterize the city’s residents. Cleverly using the nightmarish traffic conditions to make broader statements on the zeitgeist of the nation, Elkatsha’s docu is best appreciated by audiences familiar with the metropolis.
Given Egypt’s topicality, programmers should line up to slot this into fests and showcases, since even strangers to Cairo’s mad whirl will find themselves laughing alongside their more conversant neighbors (Abu Dhabi’s best Arab docu prize should help generate attention). Together with Sherif El Bendary’s superb medium-length docu “On the Road to Downtown,” it offers the best reading of Cairo’s urban fabric and the way the semi-controlled bedlam of its streets reflects deeper aspects of Egyptian society.
As one of Elkatsha’s subjects remarks, trying to cross the street in Cairo is like playing “Frogger”: It takes skill, bravery and a certain amount of faith in humanity. Via marvelous overhead shots that emphasize the Mondrian-like geometry of the traffic, the helmer alternates between the abstract and the concrete in a city of 20 million inhabitants and 14 million vehicles. “Vehicle” can mean anything from a bus to a donkey cart (not an unusual site even in the city center), each with its own rules and hierarchy. In addition, there’s the inescapable cacophony of car horns, forming a constant Morse-code conversation. Rather than merely a way of alerting other vehicles to a car’s presence, Cairo’s language of beep-beeps needs to be seen as a dialogue with strangers, rich in earthy vulgarities, fleeting flirtations and simple how-d’you-dos.
Elkatsha began shooting in 2009 and ended in 2012, fortuitously covering the pre-Revolutionary past and the uncertain present. Getting a driver’s license is generally a difficult process so those with connections or a bit of extra money often bribe clerks for the papers without actually taking tests. It’s just another way Cairo residents have learned to negotiate a broken-down system, symptomatic of the pervasive levels of corruption affecting all levels of society. It helps to know that most Egyptians have a deeply distrustful relationship with the police, many of whom have disappeared in the last two years during crucial moments of instability (Elkatsha includes a scene of self-appointed traffic “helpers” in Tahrir Square during one of these absences).
Like an expert driver, the helmer adeptly negotiates between ironic counterpoint and deadly seriousness, such as when he abruptly shifts to a longtime American resident in Cairo whose daughter, 18, was struck and killed by a bus. For all the knowing jokes, the situation on the streets is unquestionably out of control, reflecting problems in the country’s political and social foundation, chillingly summarized in the alarming last scene. There’s an underlying suggestion here that the exhaustive patience required every day just to negotiate city traffic contributed to the country’s numbed inertia during decades of authoritarian rule; it’s a less far-fetched concept than it sounds, though it remains to be seen if and how the Revolution impacts on the population’s level of tolerance for crumbling infrastructures.
People interviewed span the class spectrum, making clear that it’s not just the privileged who find ways to manipulate the system. One of the subjects points out that since most people live at home until they’re married, cars are the only private spaces they have, making them an ideal symbol of encapsulated lives navigating the boundaries of acceptability within a carefully controlled public sphere.
Elkatsha’s visuals have an ironic flair, whether shot from above or on street level, attuned to the satisfying pleasures of form without being merely gratuitous decoration. Although there’s a drop of repetition, editing is terrific, expertly bound up with a clever use of music, from original compositions to Handel’s “Water Music.”