By Joseph Fahim
Apart from Heliopolis, my beloved district that has been the subject of various recent films, no other neighborhood in Cairo is as diverse, complex and utterly fascinating as Downtown. Once the most affluent, most beautiful locality in Egypt, the face of Downtown, like most of the country, has radically changed over time; reflecting the social, economic and now political upheavals that have affected the nation for the past 50 years.
Beauty and ugliness, order and chaos, hopefulness and doubt define post-January 25 Downtown Cairo, as seen by Egyptian filmmaker Sherif El-Bendary in his new documentary “On the Road to Downtown,” a splendid tribute to a place rampant with contradictions.
El-Bendary depicts Downtown from the point of view of a number of characters: Karima Mansour, famed choreographer and American University in Cairo professor, novelists Abdou El-Bermawy and Mekkawi Said, an elderly Downtown resident named Mayrese, an architect and a one-armed street vendor.
Adopting the Wellesian approach of introducing characters via reversing the wide shot/medium shot/close-up rule and playing with it in different orders, El-Bendary sets up the visual structure from the get-go, breaking the exhausted conventions afflicting Egyptian documentary filmmaking.
No formal introduction is made to the characters. El-Bendary thrusts the viewers in the middle of the action; of the noise, culture and the unfamiliar worlds some of these characters rove in. With Mansour, El-Bermawy and Mayrese, the camera appears to be intruding on their lives, impeding the natural flow of their daily routine. With Said and the vendor, the camera seems as if it’s spying on them, maintaining a considerable distance it doesn’t allow itself to cross.
No concrete chronicle is being provided by these characters; the narrative is constructed on snippets of anecdotes, impressions and memories, forming a rather impressionistic view of the neighborhood that often clashes not only with the current reality, but with the visual record at offer.
Mansour spends the entire duration of the film in a search for a parking spot, which she eventually fails to find. When she’s not talking on the phone, she tells the camera of her long-standing relationship with Downtown, her unexpected return to the Egyptian theater, of the wealth of old public theaters, cinemas and art spaces that remains unutilized, of the bureaucracy of the old regime that has led to the negligence of these valuable art hubs and the corruption that precluded any artist unaffiliated with the regime to use these spaces.
“This place,” she adds, “was much more coherent” in terms of the socio-economic standing of its residents, of the shape of the buildings and of the dominant culture.
El-Bermawy hops from one gallery to another, stopping by bookstores and ultimately settles in his favorite coffee shop. He points out that the Downtown of the intellectuals greatly differs from everyone else’s. Each group has a “square” they always revolve around and rarely go beyond.
Mayrese reminisces about the good old days, yet attests her undying love to the place where she spent the entirety of her life; a close attachment she can’t articulate.
Said, in the most intriguing, most amusing strand of the film, visits an old memorabilia store teeming with rare photos, maps, documents and all sorts of spellbinding objects — relics of a different culture providing detailed snapshots of a time that not only seems more innocent, but more imaginative, more levelheaded and more simple.
The street vendor is the center of conflict of the story. Selling socks in the middle of Downtown, the young vendor stands in contrast to the old buildings, coffee shops and lofty galleries; the shouting competitions the vendor refuses to take part in represents the ugliness of modern Egyptian life. When it comes to business, the vendors abide by no rules, fighting with all their might to survive in this break-neck world. The dynamics of their world is governed by disorder, an opposing force to the orderly geography of the place.
Save for the vendor, the world all characters orbit around is self-contained, reflecting certain shades of the outside reality yet preserving its insularity; an act of defiance to safeguard a delicately constructed world from the ravaging outside forces.
Many of the area’s old majestic buildings appear weathered, eroded and out of place with the inhospitable new reality of the nation.
“Look at those buildings, how beautifully designed they are,” Mansour says in one scene. “You look at them and you feel that time stood still, that they are covered with the dust of time.”
And although this sturdy outside reality overshadows the memory vessels scattered over the neighborhood, this peculiar amalgam of high and low cultures, of creation and ruin, makes for one unique whole.
What distinguishes many of the most famous attractions in Downtown is their egalitarian nature. Bars and coffee shops like El-Horreya, Stella or El-Borsa are frequented by the old and the young, foreigners and locals, the religious and the non-believers — people from every socio-economical background. Galleries like Townhouse and Mashrabia are directly engaged with their surroundings, attracting young art lovers in addition to a new, less privileged audience nurtured in this hybrid culture.
The last segment of the 50-minute documentary sheds light on Downtown’s proximity to Tahrir, the birthplace of the January 25 uprising. The insufferable daily traffic points to how life has returned to its natural course, not just in Tahrir but in the entire country. The graffiti adorning the walls of the American University in Cairo and Qasr El-Eini Street is misleading, ironic even; a revolutionary objet d’art situated in a place that has turned against the revolution. Near the end of the film, the architect questions the beautification endeavors of random citizens in Tahrir (who appear to be Salafis and Muslim Brotherhood members). “What we used to have during the revolution is something so arbitrary, so unsystematic that, nevertheless, was beautiful and true,” he remarks. “In the new Egypt, everything looks so beautiful yet it’s ugly and shallow. It feels very hypocritical.”
The film is not without flaws. El-Bendary steers away from conventional talking heads; the soundbites of the characters often come off as commentary on the explored area. The biggest mistake El-Bendary commits is his refusal to indentify his characters. The architect could be a set-designer for all I know, while Mayrese may or may not be the owner of famous Downtown restaurant Estorelle. And unless you’re familiar with Said’s writings, which are deeply entrenched in the Downtown culture, you wouldn’t even figure out that he’s a novelist. This lack of identification is not only unfair to the unacquainted viewers, but to the subjects themselves, whose works require more explicit recognition.
The last part about the revolution, as intriguing as it is, feels equally botched and forced over the narrative. Trailing the end of the rather unified narrative, this segment isn’t quite integral to the flow of the story, begging for more examination, more insight.
Overall though, “On the Road to Downtown” is one of the finest, most accomplished Egyptian documentaries of the past couple of years. It’s not as heartfelt as some viewers expect it to be, but it is certainly rich in its themes, stimulating in its visuals and thought-provoking in its ideas.