ABU DHABI — Someone once told Egyptian filmmaker Sherief Elkatsha that you can tell much about the personality of a nation from the conduct of its drivers.
In his 77-minute documentary “Cairo Drive,” which had its premiere at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival this week, Elkatsha follows Cairo drivers from all walks of life and sees parallels with the challenges facing Egyptian society more broadly.
While Egyptians have rarely been more bitterly divided than now - split between supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and those who favor the military-backed government - Elkatsha says the capital's inhabitants will always have one thing in common: traffic misery.
“I just started thinking about my own country and I thought that's it. That's how I can show the personality of a nation,” said Elkatsha.
“Driving just seemed like the grand equalizer for me, it's one of the most egalitarian things in Egypt. Whether you're driving a donkey cart or a fancy car, everyone has to get from point A to point B.”
In Egypt's teeming capital of 20 million, the only road rules worth following are those made up by drivers who have suffered decades of long delays.
Getting behind a wheel to navigate the busy streets means shifting from one lane to another to occupy a coveted empty space - what Egyptians call taking a “ghorza,” or stitch.
It also involves familiarizing yourself with the language of flashing headlights and horns, which may translate into anything from a polite request to pass to a biting insult.
“It just becomes your whole day and you plan your life accordingly, you even don't go places sometimes because you just can't handle the traffic,” said Elkatsha.
Before uprising, after elections
Footage for the documentary was shot over four years, starting in 2009, two years before veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising.
The director, who splits his time between New York and Cairo, stopped filming in June. His journey took him from the Mubarak era to just before the ouster of Morsi.
But he chose to include footage only up to Morsi's election in 2012. “I felt it was when Egypt had turned a page so I decided to stop there,” he said.
Elkatsha said his film was not political.
“It isn't a revolution movie, but it kind of drives around the revolution,” he said.
“There was this buildup to what happened in January 2011, and I feel that I somehow captured that. Not living in Cairo but coming back regularly, I felt it was a little bit harder every time to get that Egyptian spirit to come out, which is what I love, that sense of humor,” said Elkatsha.
The film captures the hopeful euphoria that swept through Egypt after Mubarak's ouster, as well as the ensuing disappointment many people felt at the lack of real change.
In one memorable scene, a press bus following a presidential candidate in 2012 gets stuck when the driver takes a wrong turn and starts down a narrow road.
The bus never makes it to the campaign stop and the driver stares in despair at the gridlock as passengers decide to get off and walk the rest of the way.
“To me that was just this great analogy of a rushed election,” said Elkatsha.
As the mood on the streets shifted from hope to disillusionment, people's tone turned darker. Summing up her frustration at seemingly endless waiting, one woman behind the wheel sighed and said: “It's a mess. Egypt is just a big mess.”