News Column

A comic spin through The City Victorious

October 30, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 30--ABU DHABI -- The world's megacities tend to boast tales of epic automobile traffic. In Sao Paulo and Mexico City, Beijing and Tehran, residents and visitors alike dine out on stories of monthslong traffic jams, breathtaking smog and, when the traffic arteries are not utterly clogged, drivers' acts of mind-boggling recklessness. Traffic is a global language of many dialects. In the MENA region bordering the Mediterranean, no city's automotive reputation is more exotic than that of Cairo. The driving culture of The City Victorious is the subject of "Cairo Drive," the new feature-length doc of Egyptian-American director Sherief Elkatsha.

There are many voices in the film, speaking Arabic and English, but Elkatsha focuses on a handful of figures. Some -- Amira, Ayman and Motaz -- serve as bilingual tour guides of the city's driving culture.

Three characters -- one a professional driver and two student drivers -- are slightly more fleshed out. Ibrahim is a working class ambulance driver whose salary is so marginal he fears he'll never be able to get married. Jehane is a young hijab-wearing mother who worries about her kids getting to school. The well-off Karina is a young woman for whom a driving license is necessary to move independently through the city.

Thanks to his characters' sense of humor, the natural tone of the film, especially the bits shot before the revolution, is comic.

After a crash course in the refined language of horn-honking -- and the sectarian divide among taxi drivers, microbus drivers and tuk-tuk drivers -- one motorist discusses how hostile the streets are to pedestrians. To cross these streets, he observes, peds have to be always alert. Drivers too must be alert to avoid smashing into pedestrians.

"This is why Egyptians are so unproductive," he concludes, "because we have to exert so much energy doing the most basic things."

Elkatsha makes good use of his postproduction to accentuate Cairo's organic visual incongruities. The film's opening montage of street vignettes, for instance, is accompanied by the baroque orchestral music of Handel.

He (and co-editors Pierre Haberer and Tarek Gamal El Din) are also skilled in the jump cut, film comedy's most basic asset.

After watching stand-up comedian George Azmy regale his audience with speculations about how Cairenes will soon evolve forehead envelopes so they can present their IDs to the cops without taking their hands off the wheel, the film cuts to the stern face of Colonel Sayed Osman. At the world premiere screening, this bit of editing sent the already chuckling audience into gales of laughter.

The straight-faced Osman later confides that he'd like to form a new generation of Egyptians who are well versed in the rules of the road. The film then leaps to a primary school where youngsters sing, in English, "Red red red means stop ... Green green green means go ... yellow yellow yellow ..."

Of the three principal narrative threads, it is that of Karina's struggle to get her drivers' license that is most imbued with comedy. After explaining why she's decided she must know how to drive, the camera accompanies her on a driving lesson in an abandoned lot.

Following some ineffectual efforts at parallel parking, the driving instructor volunteers to stand behind the car to simulate the effect of having a parked car behind her. She attempts the maneuver again and slams into him. He survives.

By the end of the film both Jehane and Karina succeed in getting their licenses. Neither of them is able to pass their driving exam, though, so they end up having to get it by extra-legal means. Sitting alongside the newly licensed Karina as she sits at the wheel, her male friend remarks, to the general amusement of the audience, "Curse the man who gave you your license!"

These episodes are included to suggest some of the corruption inherent in Egypt's automotive regime.

There are those who may be offended by the fact that both these figures are female, reinforcing certain stereotypes of women's allergy to responsible driving.

After so many belly laughs, "Cairo Drive" becomes radically more sober when a U.S. expat oil company employee tells the story of how a speeding bus slammed into his adolescent daughter Diana as she was crossing a Cairo street one night, killing her.

The somber anecdote marks the film's diversion into the more serious waters of the socio-economic alienation of Cairo's residents. One character expresses a sense of foreboding about what would happen "if Mubarak died tomorrow."

It's a perfect signpost for the January 2011 revolution.

Shot between 2009 and 2012, "Cairo Drive" bears all the markings of a comedy of urban manners left stranded by Mubarak's overthrow. Elkatsha is fortunate insofar as -- notwithstanding the temporary disappearance of Egyptian police -- the revolution did not revolutionize Cairo residents' driving habits.

"Cairo Drive" is an entertaining and perceptive spin through The City Victorious. Its warm reception among ADFF's cosmopolitan audience underlines the film's suitability to the Western market for which it's been fashioned -- the "main event" of its first half is Obama's 2009 Cairo visit.

This is hardly unnatural, given that the filmmaker was born in, and nowadays resides in, the U.S.

After Monday evening's world premiere, one critic observed that a film about Cairo's traffic mores could be compacted into a TV-friendly 58 minutes. This may be true but the extra 20 minutes are probably justified because of the thickening needed to accommodate the post-January 2011 period.

Few will be shocked by what Elkatsha's film tells them.

Even the most parochial residents of America's most benighted rural backwaters have access to some online equivalent to CNN International or Al-Jazeera English, so interested audiences long would have been exposed to photos and video of traffic jams in the "Global South."

Anyone who lives in this region will have undergone some minor-key variation on the Cairene theme, perhaps daily. Even Beirut -- whose entire population is dwarfed by that of Cairo's Shubra district -- traffics in this theater of the absurd.

Witness Fouad Elkoury's quirky 2005 doc "Welcome to Beirut," whose most-comic motifs include a conversation with a Beirut artist navigating the city's traffic and the mute exertions of a traffic cop.

The power of "Cairo Drive" resides in the affectionate sense of humor with which Elkatsha assesses the practices of Cairo motorists, and the ad hoc comic genius of the Cairenes themselves.

The Abu Dhabi Film Festival continues until Nov. 2. For more information see http://www.abudhabifilmfestival.ae/en/.

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(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)

Visit The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon) at www.dailystar.com.lb/

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