Cairo Drive: Abu Dhabi Review

"Cairo Drive"
Sherief Elkatsha wittily develops a brilliant metaphor for Egypt's collective identity in its out-of-control traffic.

A delightful and thought-provoking study of traffic, which won best Arab documentary at Abu Dhabi.

Taking its cue from the tuk-tuk driver of an auto rickshaw scooting down the streets, Cairo Drive shows how “it’s hell in Cairo, but the human element comes out in the end.” Traffic fills every available space in the city of 20 million. It also provides an engaging metaphor for the chaos of change that has washed over Egypt since the Arab spring: filming began in 2009 and ended last year, with demonstrations in progress. With its happy combination of humor and current events, Sherief Elkatsha’s feature won a well-deserved best Arab documentary award at Abu Dhabi and should go on to delight world festival audiences.

The film opens ironically on overhead shots of clean streets and perfectly ordered traffic while Handel’s Water Music underlines the fluid harmony of the situation. It’s all overturned a few moments later with the onslaught of pandemonium, horns blaring, pedestrians taking their lives in their hands to dash across eight “lanes” of traffic to cross the street without stop lights. There are no crosswalks. But there are plenty of frustrated drivers shouting at each other or making jokes, collective taxis letting passengers on and off, cars and trucks and scooters carrying five family members at a time, not to mention donkey carts. 

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The first half of the film is a prodigy of comic editing, turned on by rollicking Egyptian party music and behind-the-wheel interviews. A giggly girl is taking driving lessons, but ultimately pulls strings to get her license without the bother of a test. An intrepid lady driver, evidently a friend of the filmmakers, comments on the Egyptian character with the disparaging wit of a New Yorker.  There are accidents and ambulances get stuck in traffic. Disorder and randomness rule the day.  Tragedy is also present when an American father emotionally recalls the death of his 18-year-old daughter who was hit by a bus.

Just as the energy begins to show signs of flagging, Tahrir Square happens. Elkatsha makes the best of the unscripted revolution to capture the flavor of the capital. The police immediately disappear from the streets and volunteers jump in to direct traffic and demand patience from antsy drivers. Tanks rumble by. A taxi driver tells the camera, “We’re no longer afraid to speak our minds.” A bus struggles down a busy street going the wrong way.

Ultimately the system hasn’t changed, notes one alert character. It’s the same chaos as before – but people smile more on the street. And traffic may offer the first sign of whether the regimes to come can impose rules and get the situation under control.

Brooklyn-based Elkatsha (Butts Out, We Are Watching You) brings a subtle international sensibility to the film that helps it connect with non-Egyptian audiences. Editing is very well handled as is the music inserts by Mohamed Ghorab, Ahmed Azzam and Sabrine El Hossamy add a lot.


Venue: Abu Dhabi Film Festival (documentary competition), Oct. 27, 2013

Production companies:  Katsha Films, Nimbus Film, Danish Documentary Productions
Ayman Samir, Karina Shalaby, George Azmy, Jehane Abou Youssef, Amira Ghazalla, Iman Ezzat
Director: Sherief Elkatsha
Screenwriter: Sherief Elkatsha
Producer: Sherief Elkatsha
Co-producers:  Mikala Krogh, Sigrid Dyekjaer, Soren Green
Director of photography: Sherief Elkatsha
Editors: Sherief Elkatsha, Pierre Haberer
Music: Mohamed Ghorab, Ahmed Azzam, Sabrine El Hossamy
No rating, 77 minutes.