by Sherif Awad
Although very educative and informative, award-winning documentary films, Egyptian or international, don’t get enough exposure on our satellite channels or our local cinema which only focus on the entertainment aspect of broadcasting and ticket sales. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, cinemas in Downtown Cairo and Alexandria used to show a short documentary that was produced by the Egyptian State Information Office before the main feature, a habit that faded away when multiplexes replaces big theaters. Hence, documentary filmmakers who spend months and years shooting and promoting their documentaries worldwide can only screen their works to a narrow margin of audience across the film festival circuits only. One of these filmmakers is Egyptian director Romany Saad whose new 75-minute documentary Tuk-Tuk was screened at the official competitions of four leading film festivals: Hot Docs, Warsaw, Montpellier and EBS Korea during the year 2015.
Tuk-Tuk is about the daily lives of three kids who became Tuk-Tuk drivers across the crazy streets of Cairo. The drivers are underage kids who lost their childhood innocence: they speak like grownups, smoke cigarettes and rush across the streets between taxis, buses and police officers without driving license. All they need is to get few pounds to supports their siblings and their parents who cannot work due to illness or laziness.
Graduated from the Faculty of Applied Arts in 1998, Romany Saad worked in advertising for ten years until he enrolled in film direction studies at the French University in Egypt. After two years, Saad realized his graduation project called Gowa al-Bahr (In the Sea), a short narrative film about a young woman called Reda who is looking after the mentally challenged Ne’na’a, her elder sister. It was a good career start for an independent filmmaker like Saad since this debut was selected to be screened in Cairo, Alexandria and Jordan festivals of the year 2010. The January 2011 revolution inspired Saad with the concept of his second narrative film Bard Yanayer (Cold January) that co-starred a pre-stardom Mohamed Ramadan with actress Emy. Its story was about a poor uneducated mother (Emy) who was trying to raise some money by selling Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square during the revolution days in order to buy a door for her unfurnished room to protect her children from the cold winter in January. The film received the award of the Best Film depicting the revolution from Alexandria Film Festival in 2011, the only film festival that was not cancelled that year. It was then screened in many festivals only to win twelve international awards including Best Short Narrative at Busan Film Festival in South Korea. After these two films, Saad decided to leave his other job and focus on filmmaking. Because of the awards and positive reviews that Cold January received, Saad started to be commissioned by several NGOs to direct short documentaries about their activities.
The idea of making his third film a documentary about Tuk-Tuks was simply born because Romany Saad lives in the neighborhood of Shubra whose streets are populated by these three-wheeled motorized rickshaws. “Every day, I take a Tuk-Tuk accompanying my son to his school along the tight backstreets of Shubra”, said Saad who noticed that their Tuk-Tuk driver is every time a cigarette-smoking young child.
Before shooting, Saad met many kids who drive Tuk-Tuks across Shubra. “I wanted to follow them to shoot their daily routine across the street and their lives with their families whom they support”, explains Saad who did not want to interfere by giving the kids any direction to alter their daily realities. Tuk-Tuk has three main protagonists. The first interviewee is a twelve years-old boy called Abdallah who looks like a child actor with his green eyes and blond hair. He has been driving the family’s Tuk-Tuk to support his brothers and parents who are not working. Abdallah was taught how to drive by his elder brother Sharon who first showed him how to drive microbuses then motorcycles. Every day, Abdallah, who does not go to schools, wakes up to work from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon until he goes home to split the money he gets with his family while keeping some pocket money for himself to buy cigarettes. His friend and neighbor Shehab, nicknamed Bika among other kiddie drivers, learned how to manage a Tuk-Tuk only by watching another child doing it. Bika then convinced his mum to invest in getting a Tuk-Tuk by installments to support his whole family. He also keeps some money for himself: five pounds or so to play videogames with his friends at cybercafés. Also appearing in the film Abdallah’s brother nicknamed Sharon by the neighbors because he likes to play with fireworks in national holiday. Romany Saad shot with long lenses and wireless microphones across the streets of Shubra in order to capture their daily routines without his interference.
“The only difficulties I faced during the shooting was with to try to make the interviewees not to diverge and speak about former President Mursi and The Muslim Brotherhood”, explained Saad who was shooting few weeks before the second revolution in June 30, 2013. “I think I have six hours of video footage with them insulting Mursi and the Brotherhood”, laughed Romany.
Tuk-Tuk was the first Egyptian film ever to be selected in the official competition of HotDocs the leading documentary festival in Toronto, Canada. The film was acknowledged by the festival’s programmers because it did not judge the lives of these kids and their families and so the viewers will not decide to love or hate them.
Back to Cairo, the Egyptian viewers were shocked after watching the lives of those kiddie drivers although they are frequent with Tuk-Tuks every day across our streets. When the film was screened at the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) last year in the Critics’ Week Section, it was praised by Egyptian veteran documentary filmmaker Hashem al-Nahas for its pacing and realism. Flashforward to Ismailia Film Festival last April, Tuk-Tuk was selected at the long documentary competition where it received Best Egyptian Film Award.
Romany Saad has so far self-financed all of his three films with his own money without relying on international funds to support his practice. “I am not that enthusiastic about international funds because, one way or the other, these entities try to alter the concept of the films whether during development, shooting or editing phases”, explains Saad. “Some filmmakers wait to get various supports different funds, Arab or international, just to realize one film every five years. And I don’t want to be like them”.