From above, Cairo looks like a city populated almost entirely by vehicles. Taxis, buses, tuk-tuks, motorbikes, microbuses and pedestrians all come together in enormous traffic jams. Getting around is a constant struggle, simultaneously a charming video game come to life and a troubling threat to the lives and livelihoods of many Egyptians. When you hear locals talking about it, it seems as if this has been an essential problem since time immemorial, as if the Pyramids themselves were initially intended to be the world’s largest traffic cones.
Fortunately, Sherief Elkatsha’s new documentary does not begin with time immemorial. Cairo Drive kicks off in early 2009 and follows everything automotive in the city through 2012. Elkatsha shoots cars both from above and from within, hitching rides with cab drivers and commuters alike. No one can agree on one single explanation for why traffic is so terrible, though everyone has a great deal to say.
As one woman puts it, “we are a communicative civilization.” People even lean out of their windows to chat and argue with neighboring drivers. In a way, the very Egyptian style of driving is social. Rules are more like suggestions, and traffic police have basically no control over the city. A road has as many lanes as it needs to at any given time, determined by the drivers themselves. If there is open space, someone will fill it. Even on the smoothest days, the flow of traffic seems much more dependent upon communication between drivers than anything resembling official order.
Not that this is some sort of model for a potential Egyptian democracy, of course. Yet Cairo Drive runs up against politics in ways that Elkatsha could never have anticipated before he started filming. The first fascinating moment comes in 2009, when newly elected President Obama gave his famous speech in Cairo. As it turns out, then-President Hosni Mubarak basically emptied the streets entirely in order to make the city seem like a much calmer and more organized place. Elkatsha captures the bemused disbelief of cab drivers watching the vacant streets, and offers some quietly hilarious images of a traffic-free capital.
Then, about two-thirds of the way through Cairo Drive, the 2011 revolution erupts. Suddenly the traffic police have disappeared entirely, an absence proven more mysterious than troublesome as many drivers point out how little they helped in the first place. Down at Tahrir Square itself there are volunteer revolutionaries directing cars, while further out there are citizen roadblocks exercising a paranoid urge to replicate the control of the police.
Elkatsha makes sure to illustrate that while the mood in Cairo has certainly changed, the mechanics of driving have not — not really. In the 2012 presidential election, both candidates promise an instant fix to the city’s traffic crisis but no one believes them. The use of bribery to procure a driver’s license, prevalent before the revolution, has not gone away. The people have been liberated from a dictator, but not from their cars.
One can see this in the way that Elkatsha presents the streets of Cairo. The principle stylistic cocktail of the film is a blend of sardonic, wide shots of traffic taken from above and frenetic moments collected from the inside of cars. The overhead shots in particular begin to feel a bit like a city symphony or a ballet, and the use of some very mannered classical music actually evokes Viktor Kossakovsky’s Demonstration.
Elkatsha has expertly captured a great landscape of loud, little movements that amount to a solid, perhaps eternal gridlock. The consistency of his approach, across revolutions, elections and the most immediate of histories, seems to allude to the soul of Cairo itself. His last shot, among the most surprising and disturbing of the year so far, finally adds a bleak ambivalence to this balance of movement and stillness, elevating the entire film.