Documenting something as nebulous as a revolution is a difficult challenge for a filmmaker. In Cairo Drive (T/F 2014) Sherief Elkatsha takes an unusual and startlingly effective approach. Riding shotgun and talking traffic with motorists on Cairo’s congested streets, he captures a fascinating mosaic of the frustrations and ambitions of a city on the edge. The film spans the critical period of 2009-2011, providing a window into the fall of Mobarak and the beginning of Egypt’s uncertain future.
Cairo Drive makes its New York premiere tomorrow as part of DOC NYC. A few months back I got to speak with director Sherief Elkatsha about his insightful and frequently hilarious film.
T/F: Could you start by telling me about how the project began?
SE: Sure. I started making this film in 2009. I was in between Cairo and New York, and every time I came back to Cairo things were getting a little tenser. A good litmus test for where the city was at was the driving. I thought I was going to witness a boiling point of sorts. I had no idea of course that in 2011 what did happen would happen. But I just thought that the easiest way to address all sorts of different issues was through the driving, because that’s sort of everyone’s story. Knowing that I wanted to get into deeper issues, it was very non-threatening and non-political to say “let’s just talk about the traffic.”
In 2011 I was already deep into editing two years of footage, and I thought I was done filming. And then of course the news happened and the goal was to be on the first plane to Cairo to continue filming.
T/F: It’s really cool how traffic let’s you talk about fundamental issues of social cooperation and tension, but in a very concrete, down-to-Earth, unpretentious way.
SE: It was really difficult to film in Cairo. People are generally a little bit paranoid. And they always assume that what you’re filming is to make them look bad outside of Egypt. But when I came to them with the subject of driving, because they felt it was something they all had an opinion about, that they were all experts.
What I liked most is that it sort of crossed through all class structure. In Egypt a lot of people are very poor and there are a few affluent people, but in traffic everyone is sort of the same. Whether you’re riding a donkey cart or in a Mercedes sedan, we’re all stuck at the same traffic light. You can’t really live in a bubble in Cairo.
T/F: I love the section early on where the guy sort of introduces the traffic horns as a proto-language.
SE: If I knew then what I know now … people seem to love that bit, and of course it’s hilarious. He went on and on, I should have put more of it into the film.
The language of horns is certainly something that exists. I was unaware to what extent and how specific you could be with your horn. That it wasn’t just “piss off” but instead actively criticizing how someone is driving, just with your horn. And the same is true for lights, but I couldn’t get into that in an hour-and-a-half film. There is all sorts of language with flicking high beams and low beams and what this means and that means.
T/F: So I’ve been asking people this question which is kind of broad, and leaving it open to interpretation. What’s true/false about your film?
SE: Well, certainly my film walks the line between being vérité and non vérité. Let’s be honest, anytime you have a camera around there’s going to be an element of falseness to it. People react to being filmed, and this is sort of a natural thing. And then of course we edit the hell out of movies, so that’s an element of falseness.
And I’d like to think what’s true/false about it is also that most of the films at True/False have a level of integrity that isn’t mainstream. I’d like to think that my film fits into that.
T/F: The magic with this sort of movie is how all of the parts fit together to build a whole. When did you know you had enough to make a film? I mean, you said you thought you had enough before the revolution in 2011?
SE: Let me take it back. I never thought I had enough; I still don’t think I have enough. The nature of the film is such that I felt like I was making a wildlife documentary. You’re always missing something and there’s always something that could be filmed better. That’s the problem with a documentary. You think, you have an idea, and you go out and shoot it, but then you think, I could reshoot that.
So I put a constraint on myself and said it was going to be two years of shooting, or it was going to be one more year. Each year sort of got longer.
When I started the editing process I told people I wanted a film as populated as the city, and everyone told me “you shouldn’t do that. This is not the way to make a movie.” And I just didn’t want to focus on any one story. And so I would say, editing was really important in my film. In order to keep the story moving and to keep us maybe not caring too much about any one character and instead caring about this sort of carnival ride that they’re all on. That was the goal.
I could still keep filming. There’s stuff that’s happening now with respect to the traffic, it’s endless. But once we had our second election I said “Okay, we’re done. I have over 200 hours of footage. I’ll have to pick and choose from that.”
T/F: That’s interesting. The story is about the place, and the bits of story we get from the people have to serve that. So there’s this danger of someone stealing the show?
SE: Yeah, it’s true. Also, any character I did show I wanted to stand for something bigger. So even though certain characters were great — and having done a few festivals I see which characters stick with people — it’s not just about that individual story. I wanted it to be bigger stories that deal with bigger issues, whether it’s women’s rights, or men getting married in Cairo, which is a huge issue for us.
As we come into the revolution, I wanted a few more voices that exemplified the kind of person that went out into the street to become an activist.
T/F: Do you have an example in mind for some person that really stands for something?
SE: For example, some people have asked “why did you have the ambulance drivers?” There’s this whole scene in between calls where all these ambulance drivers are sort of sitting around shooting the shit, which was again very vérité. I was just sitting there with my camera, probably cleaning it, and they started talking about how this one kid wanted to get married. This to me is huge because I know 50% of the population is under the age of 35 and a huge issue is getting married, being able to afford marriage. Because you have to have an apartment, because you have to have a dowry, etc. So suddenly this scene is unfolding where this issue of so many of the youth in Cairo is coming up, and it just so happens because it’s ambulance drivers shooting the shit. He wanted to get married and the woman turned him down because he was a driver and she wanted him to have a better job. He has an apartment and a job, but he can’t get married.
A year later we find out he does get married. This is after the revolution has happened. And I’m sort of shocked, “You got married and had twins in just over a year?” And he said “Yeah, look what happened to the country. It happened overnight.” It was sort of a small moment but it was indicative of life going on despite the historic events.
T/F: Was it difficult in editing to reconcile the structure of the film with the flow of political developments in Egypt?
SE: Yeah, anything is always a challenge because you lose perspective very quickly as to what is interesting. At the end I had a 72 minute cut, and I crowd funded to hire an editor I had worked with before named Pierre Haberer. He came for Paris and lived in my apartment here. In those final 6 weeks he gave me the objectivity I was lacking to keep the story moving. Also, giving the right details and not the wrong details that are going to confuse an audience.
Also, a lot of the material is very funny, but at the same time the subject that I am dealing with is not all shits and giggles. Anyone who has spent time in Cairo certainly knows people that have lost their lives on the road. So I wanted to give it the gravity that I thought it deserves. Some people just thought I should make the whole thing a comedy, but at some point it stops being funny and just becomes “What the fuck?” There is a turning point, and I think it worked out well putting it just before the revolution happens.
I do have a character in 2010 basically predicting the revolution. You know, “something bad is going to happen, could be in the next 3 to 5 years.” And I sort of push him “What are you talking about?” And he says “If Mobarak passes away tomorrow, this country’s going to go into a lot of trouble until someone strong tries to fix it.”
T/F: Yeah, that was very striking.
SE: Yeah, and again we didn’t want to put dates and we didn’t want everything to be explained, we just wanted it to be this is what it is.
T/F: Do you have any personal experiences driving in Cairo that informed the movie?
SE: Well, I learned to drive in Cairo and it’s kind of the only place where I really do drive. When I come here in the US I have a hard time with street signs and reading and exits. But in Cairo I feel really at home, where it’s kind of like the character in my film says “If you see space, occupy it.” It’s more interactive in a way.
I think there’s something about Cairo where you never assume anything, you never assume a green light. So you are always on edge expecting that someone will jump out from a car in front of your car. I think that makes us better drivers in the actual urban setting, where you are ready for anything. Anything could happen, and it usually does.