"Tuk-tuk": Representing a Complicated Reality in a Simple Style

in 37th Cairo International Film Festival

by Seham Abd el Salam

It was a pleasure to join the FIPRESCI jury in the 37th Edition of International Cairo Film Festival. Besides viewing the competition movies, I enjoyed viewing some movies from the other programs of the festival. One of these programs is the 2nd edition of the Cairo International Film Critics week, which is organized by the Egyptian Film Critics Association (EFCA). It is also the second year in which feature length documentaries and animations are accepted in the different sections of the international Cairo Film Festival.

Tuk-tuk is an Egyptian documentary directed by Romany Saad.  It was screened in the EFCA Film Week. A tuk-tuk is a sort of rickshaw, three wheeled, motorized and mostly driven by teenagers in Egyptian slums and poor urban and rural areas. Director Romany Sadd used this vehicle as the theme of his documentary, to giveaudiences a better understanding of the life of the poor in Egypt.The documentary is divided into three sections, introduced by written titles: “Not the First Day”, “A Regular Day” and “Not the Last Day.” In a consistent style, each sections starts from the general surroundings (long panoramic shots of the area) and heads towards the specific target (the tuk-tuks or one of the kids who drive them). This signifies that those marginalized kids are not aliens, but are part and parcel of our life and society. The ‘heroes’ of the documentary are three teenagers who make their living and provide for their families by driving tuk-tuks. The youngest is 12 years old, the oldest is 19 years old.As the documentary proceeds, different and deeper aspects of their lives and suffering develop gradually. The director realizes his aims through two main documentary techniques: the implementation of the camera as an observer andthe interviews.

The camera as an observer

The documentary starts by a brief introductory episode where we see tuk-tuks driven by reckless kids, causing a lot of noise by playing tape recorded,naïve songs. This is the stereotypical image of a tuk-tuk, as acceptedby the general public.We see a group of them in a later shot, arguing about the tuk-tuk. In this shot the camera plays the role of the observer. Together with the introduction, it says that the public has a point complaining.  However, the camera as an observer defeats this point when it tracks in front of one of those kidscleverly and smoothly driving a motorcycle, showing that these kids are far from being clumsy drivers. In another instance, the camera observes the kids in a coffee shop, efficiently negotiating the business of renting a tuk-tuk with an older person, showing that theyare qualified enough to manage their businessdespite their illiteracy and youth.

Another example of how the camera as an observer serves to elucidate facts is when it shows the young drivers playing hide and seek, a game that does not cost play, which contrasts the words of their mother, who believes that “children here do not play”. The children even talk about their small joys in life: smoking a cigarette, flirting with a girl, frequenting the cyber-café to play computer games and joyfully buying fruit with their pocket money. Some of these joys are neither regular nor socially accepted activities for kids in Egypt. Some of them are even really dangerous, as in the concluding scene, when the camera tracks out in front of the kids climbing and walking on a high iron bridge, over which fast trains pass regularly.

The empowering interviewer

The filmmaker interviews the kids and their parents. We never see him on the screen, and we occasionally faintly hear his voice whispering a question. This interviewing-technique givesa voice to the voiceless people who appear in the documentary. They tell us about their difficult lives with unemployed or under-employed parents and elder brothers. A father of one of them confirms that tuk-tuk driving is the only employment available to a lot of young people. Without it they would probably steal, murder or deal drugs to make a living. Given that the income of those young drivers is barely sufficient for their necessary needs, it becomes evident that it is socially hazardous to ban tuk-tuks in Egypt. A mother of one of the kids states that – even with her children’s income – she is unable to afford expensive food as meat or chicken, so the family survives on carbohydrates and vegetables.

Educationis another issue that is discussed in detail throughout the interviews. The tuk-tuk drivers’ parents say that they cannot afford paying for their education.Besides, the family needs the kids’ income, so sending them to schools will endanger their means. Some of the kids say that they hate school because of the teachers’ poor performance. Others express their hope to study and find a better job, or even be able to get a driver’s license, since they learnthow to drive from oneanother. They simply cannot afford any type of education.

Another issue discussed with the kids and their families are the problems they face when policemen and municipal officers chase them and confiscate the tuk-tuk until the kids bribe them to regain their vehicles. The father of one of the kids poses an important question: if the government thinks that tuk-tuks are bad and should be banned, why did it allow them to be imported in the first place?

Romany Saad succeeded in covering the many complex aspects of the issue with these two simple, though eloquent, documentary film techniques.

Edited by Karsten Kastelan