On the Road to Downtown: Bits and pieces of Cairo
Menna Taher, Wednesday 21 Mar 2012
The young filmmaker Sherif El Bendary attempts to capture the soul of downtown Cairo in his latest documentary

The attempt to capture the downtown spirit, one of the richest areas in Cairo – reflecting the whole country’s architectural as well as social and political history – is a very challenging procedure. In the documentary, On the Road to Downtown, Sherif El Bendary attempts to do just that, presenting bits and pieces of the area’s social fabric through six different characters forming a vision of downtown. Yet the greater challenge of the film was how to place the revolution in that area.

The shooting was due to start on 29 January 2011, four days after the outbreak of the revolution. “When I started shooting the documentary I could not overlook the revolution,” El Bendary tells Ahram Online. “However, I still didn’t want to make my film about the revolution. In the end the film did not turn out very different from what I had initially planned but you can still sense the existence of political turmoil.”

With an interesting opening sequence, On the Road to Downtown captures minute details from the area of downtown Cairo, accompanied by a beat harmonising well with a fast-moving series of shots of different aspects around the area the film opens. Establishing the setting for each character, the scenes jump from one character to the next. Yet, despite the interesting camera angles and compositions of some shots, there is still depth lacking in the documentary. Not much is revealed about the six characters; and one wonders why it was they who are chosen.

There is Hussein Fahmy, a street vendor who sells socks; Marise, who owns one of the area’s old restaurants, Estoril; the architect Omar Nagaty; the writer Mekkawy Said, who wrote a book on downtown Cairo; Amgad Naguib, an antique shop owner; Abdo, a writer, artist and calligrapher; and the dancer Karima Mansour. Apart from the vendor on the street, all the characters represent aspects of the intellectual life of downtown Cairo, which flourishes in certain coffee shops and galleries. Perhaps this is best explained by Abdo, who says that intellectuals are lazy and don’t go out of a certain triangle in the area.

However, El Bendary told Ahram Online that he was not planning on presenting the whole of downtown Cairo but only that side of it he sees. “Each character presents a certain side of me,” he said, adding that he tried to stay neutral while presenting the characters. “The relationship of each character to the area is also different. For Hussein Fahmy, who sells socks, the area presents his daily income, while for someone like Omar Nagaty, he takes more of an observer’s role as he studies people’s relationship with space.”

The characters’ everyday life is not disrupted by the documentary as they are interviewed going about their daily errands. This approach worked in some instances but not so much in others. What worked well was Mekkawy Said’s part in the antiques store. Shots showed intricate details of the different objects in the shop. One is transported in time and can actually smell the dust of antiquities. What did not work so well was the part of dancer Karima Mansour, who was shot in her car striving to find parking in order to hold a meeting.

While driving, she talks about the difficulty of finding spaces for artistic performances in the area, while complaining about the traffic. Throughout the ride one sees Central Security Forces occupying the centre of the square after dispersing the three-week sit-in that had started on 8 July, seeing the colonial buildings with their detailed adornments. Yet despite the observations of the ever-changing structure of the place, that part was lacking in energy and did not offer much as the complaint about traffic overtakes what could have been interesting about it.

“My own relationship with downtown is a love-and-hate one,” said El Bendary. “On the one hand it is a very genuine place and presents all sections of Egyptian society, but on the other hand there is still something fake in its intellectual circle. But it seems that I made some kind of peace with the place after making the documentary.”

Currently the area of is changing very fast as political events shape it. However, El Bendary says that, even before the revolution, the place was experiencing political turmoil as the Ismailiya Company bought many buildings in order to modernise the area. “This project would have disrupted its essence,” he said. For the time being, possibilities abound. For El Bendary, however, the film is simply a glimpse of the soul of downtown Cairo at a moment of repose. In a somewhat nostalgic approach, it ends with Marise looking out of the window in contemplation.

The documentary will be screened at the French Institute in Mounira but the exact date has yet to be announced