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Sharon, Abdalla's brother.

Documentary Offers Candid Look At Lives Of Child Tuk-Tuk Drivers

Tuk-Tuk follows the daily lives of three child rickshaw drivers across the crazy streets of Cairo.

by Sherif Awad

Tuk-Tuk is about the daily lives of three child rickshaw drivers across the crazy streets of Cairo. The drivers, all underage, have lost their childhood innocence: they speak like grownups, smoke cigarettes and rush across the streets between taxis, buses and police officers without driving licenses. All they live for is earning a few pounds to support their siblings and their parents who are too ill to work or too lazy to bother.

Tuk-Tuk is Egyptian Director Romany Saad’s new 75-minute documentary, and was screened at the official competitions of four leading film festivals: Hot Docs, Warsaw, Montpellier and EBS Korea last year.

The documentary was inspired by his neighborhood: Shubra, whose streets are populated by three-wheeled motorized rickshaws. “Every day, I take a tuk-tuk accompanying my son to his school along the narrow backstreets of Shubra,” says Saad, who noticed that their tuk-tuk driver was always a young, cigarette-smoking child.

Shehab

Shehab

Before shooting, Saad met many kids working as rickshaw drivers around 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: Abdallah, Sharon and Bika. The first interviewee is a 12-year-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 (nicknamed thus by the neighbors because he likes to play with fireworks on national holidays) who first showed him how to drive microbuses then motorcycles. Every day, Abdallah, who does not go to school, wakes up to work from seven in the morning until two in the afternoon when 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, learned how to manage a tuk-tuk by watching another child doing it. Bika then convinced his mom to invest in getting a tuk-tuk, paying in installments, to support his entire family. He also keeps some money for himself: five pounds or so to play videogames with his friends at cybercafés.

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 were with trying to make the interviewees not diverge and speak about former president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood,” explains 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 Morsi and the Brotherhood,” he says with a laugh.

tuk tuk documentary film

Tuk-Tuk was the first Egyptian film ever to be selected in the official competition of Hot Docs, the leading documentary festival in Toronto. The film was acknowledged by the festival’s programmers because it did not judge the lives of these kids and their families, leaving it up to the viewers to decide whether to love or hate them. Back in Cairo, Egyptian viewers were shocked after watching the lives of the child driver — despite them being a frequent sight 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. Fast-forward to Ismailia Film Festival last April, Tuk-Tuk was selected for the long documentary competition where it received Best Egyptian Film Award.

Saad has so far self-financed all of his three films 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 support from different funds, Arab or international, just to realize one film every five years. And I don’t want to be like them.”

Saad had worked in advertising for 10 years before signing up for film direction studies at the French University in Egypt. Within two years, Saad had realized his graduation project called Gowa al-Bahr (In the Sea), a short narrative film about a young woman called Reda looking after her mentally challenged older sister Ne’na’a. It was an impressive career start for an independent filmmaker like Saad, and his debut was selected for screening at festivals in Cairo, Alexandria and Jordan in 2010.

The January 2011 revolution inspired Saad’s 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 who was trying to raise some money by selling Egyptian flags in Tahrir Square during the revolution to buy a door for her unfurnished room and protect her children from the cold winter in January. The film received an award for Best Film at the Alexandria Film Festival in 2011. It was then screened in many festivals, going on to win 12 international awards, including Best Short Narrative at Busan Film Festival in South Korea. Following his success, Saad decided to leave his other job and focus on filmmaking.

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