Cairo Drive was fantastic. Part of the Barbican’s fall 2014 season City Visions, I saw it as a double bill with Cairo as Seen by Chahine, and the filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha was present as well. This was a brilliant film exploring a city through one of its primary forms of transportation – driving. The official blurb fills in the background:
Cairo, Egypt. 20 million people. 23,600 miles of road. Two million cars. Taxis, buses, donkey carts, and swarms of people, all jockeying to move through the obstacle course that is their daily lives. Sitting at a cultural intersection, Cairo is a city unlike any other, where different faiths, races, and social classes all share a few clogged arteries of tarmac.
Cairo traffic is a chaotic experience where rules are constantly challenged: an elaborate dance of leading and following, flow and resistance, and impeccable, almost miraculous timing.
But it’s the following quote opening the film that fully captures the experience of traffic there:
Cairo is an essay in entropy…but order is nevertheless maintained, if barely.
— Maria Golia, Cairo: City of Sands
So different from London, where driving isn’t important. So different from L.A., where driving is all-important. I love thinking about the relationship between this and the city and how we live in it. The dialectical relationship between a culture as a whole and individuals and how they move through a city every day, their patterns of behaviour and feelings.
Cairo Drive is shot by Elkatsha himself, filming from the side of the road or sitting in a passenger seat as he is driven through traffic by taxi drivers, ambulance drivers, friends, and family all discussing, well, driving. But this daily activity, this act of traversing the city, opens up multiple other avenues of discussion: patience and attitude, bribery and corruption, the nature of the city, what it means to be Egyptian, the experience of moving through urban spaces as mediated by culture and gender and background and class. I loved too that it was begun before the massive uprisings in Tahrir Square, documents the volunteers directing traffic in lieu of the police for a little while during the uprising itself, and then the return of traffic as normal. But not quite, because some of the fear had lifted. For a view of massive social upheaval, using the prism of traffic is a fascinating one.
As Elkatsha noted in the Q & A after the film, this is above all about communication; possibly my favourite set of conversations was on the elaborate language of horns. I hear a horn in this country and I just think ‘asshole’, but in a moving heaving roadway where there are as many lanes as you can make room for and every space must be filled, horns fulfill a much more nuanced function.
I also loved the way that some drivers opened up conversations with other drivers, the way that others joined in the conversation being filmed in the car. There is no anonymity, a very different sense of space than we are accustomed to in the US or the UK. A very similar sense of space to what I have experienced in Mexico, El Salvador, Bangladesh — almost that old binary except really I think it may just be an Anglo reserve taken on by the USA wholesale. I quite love Q & A’s, loved hearing that many people told him to just focus on a few stories whereas there are many different people speaking in the film (good choice in my opinion); that he shot over 200 hours of footage and edited as he went along, but in the end raised money to hire an outside editor to help with the final cut; that his father wanted this film to be about solving the traffic problem. With the fear always present under the Mubarek regime, Elkatsha said that people were often very reluctant to be filmed, particularly discussing politics. But a film about driving, a discussion of driving they felt was inoffensive and safe, though without fail this came back to politics. The first thing you learn in planning school is just how political anything to do with traffic and parking and roads is, so that is hardly surprising.
A lot of the people in the audience clearly knew Cairo, asked about the geographies shown in the film. The centre did feature quite a bit simply because it was central to getting from here to there — much of this was simply filmed as part of daily life. But Elkatsha didn’t want it to be about certain neighbourhoods, rather for the built environment to be simply the backdrop to these flows of people. Really for him the film was about the people and the city, the city that is the people. This echoed Chahine, and I wish more planners and architects took this definition of the city a little more to heart. Instead they were trying to change behaviour after the fact — there were some amazing shots of children in school being taught traffic safety, role-playing correct behaviour both as drivers and as pedestrians, singing safety rhymes like ‘red means stop’ even if you’re in a hurry. But really, there is so much to critique about the role the State has played in this mess, the layout of the roads themselves, the immense danger caused by enormous roads cutting through populated neighbourhoods without adequate crossings or subways, and clearly there is a lack of public transportation. The entrepreneurial and unregistered vans making up for this lack have only intensified the traffic problems, stopping anywhere to pick people up and drop people off. I have some love for cars and driving through the American Southwest’s vast spaces, but this film made me want to scrap them all, both for the planet and for society.
Of course, Cairo Drive doesn’t show too much of this bigger critique of planning and etc, it focuses on the actual experience of driving in ways that are both thoughtful and hilarious for the most part. It is the most enjoyable documentary I’ve seen in ages, the football fans stuck in traffic on their way and holding their babies out of the car windows? That had me shocked but laughing out loud and is something I will never forget, as did the wonderful woman who was just like my aunt Ruth — or what she would be if she drove in Egypt. There is a brief look at the cost of this roadway anarchy where anything goes, all the dangers and risks caused by drivers pushing it as far as they can and I’m sure regularly dying in the attempt. But probably not enough. It all seems quite benign as portrayed here, yet I imagine the death toll is horrific. It leaves you to just imagine that for yourself, really, so on the whole this is a feel-good film that illuminates a city and a culture and a key aspect of daily life, that makes you think about traffic and movement and its relationship to society and the city itself. Go see it.