In the streets of Cairo, stray dogs often compete with the hungry homeless for scraps of food salvaged from the garbage, or for a spot to spend the night, let it be under a parked car, a construction site or a sidewalk. The phenomenon is not unique to the mega city, where many of its 18 million inhabitants live in expensive homes and mansions. However, what makes the picture gloomier in Cairo than elsewhere, is that a high percentage of its homeless are children under the age of ten. What is more tragic, though, than this heart breaking condition is that they are invisible to the masses who carry on with their daily lives as if these homeless children do not exist.
In her daring documentary, “These Girls”, director Tahani Rashed’s camera follows the lives of a group of teenage homeless girls who have taken refuge in the streets, living in poverty among the filth and exposed to rape, violence, drugs, abuse, pregnancies, and often murder. As the film progresses, it becomes obvious that most of them are living in the streets voluntarily. They have homes to go back to, but none-the-less, there is nothing in these homes that demands their return. Many have run from broken homes to escape an abusive father or a stepparent. They are always on the run, from their fathers, policemen or their attackers. Many of their rapists are homeless, not much older than they are and not in any better shape, socially or mentally. They attack the girls and leave them with scarred faces and pregnant.
Without any narration, the film does not raise the question of why they ended up in the streets or how to salvage them. It merely documents their daily lives. However, in an interview Rashed, the Egyptian-Canadian director who spent six months with these girls prior to shooting the documentary, blames the social NGOs for neglecting their roles in taking care of them. “They need love which was never given to them,” Rashed said.
The film started with Tata, a tomboy, dodging the busy Cairo traffic on horseback. She was an expert in using white weapons, as she claimed later, and seemed to be in control of the situation. Tata said she wanted people to know about them and accepted to be the heroine of the film.
As the camera rolled, the girls revealed their identities and backgrounds, and the grim details of their daily lives, with no restrains. Among them was Abeer, a pregnant girl, on the run from her father who was threatening to kill her. It felt like moments of catharsis when they told their stories, as if someone finally listened to them, to their misery and agony. They laughed and joked, but admitted that their joy was drug induced.
“I am a total loser.” Donya said. “A loser at home. A loser within. I have no self-confidence. But when I love, it’s for real.” Donya explained that they do drugs to escape their harsh reality and boost their depleted self-esteem.
The documentary delves into this human tragedy and brings to the surface the dire circumstances in which these girls live in. Tata and her clan introduce the audience to their world, which can only be described as a disgrace to humanity. In the streets they fight, steal, sell drugs, prostitute and beg to have enough money to sniff glue and smoke weed. Tata explained that drugs help them to cope with their surroundings and give them courage to fight their attackers.
The film reaches its climax when the girls break down in front of the camera and their heart breaking testimonials flow down with their tears. They are confused, vulnerable, desperate and fearful. Their hearts are loaded with pain and sadness. Their souls are lost. “I want to get off the streets. I don’t want to sniff [glue] or do drugs.” Tata said as she shed tears.
Their simple words culminated their experiences as their haunting faces gazed at a hopeless future. They found solace and comfort in the sisterhood they have developed, their driving force is their solidarity, as they have no one but themselves to protect and support each other. Their destiny has already been written on the sidewalks where they live, and where they will eventually die. In their despair, they reach out for a helping hand, but there is no one out there listening to their cries.
The world as people perceive it is invisible to these girls because they live in their own world. The documentary ends with the girls dancing in the street. A new member is born; another reminder that they are there to stay and breed more miserable souls. Abeer is happy that she gave birth to a boy and that another girl was spared the life she was living, yet she was still desperate. “All I want is a birth certificate [for my child], but I don’t know how to get one.” Abeer knew that without a birth certificate, her son’s future was doomed the moment his life started. The young mother was still on the run from her father who by then was threatening to both kill her and her son. She is aware of her inevitable future, but like the rest of them, she was living in the moment, for she had nothing else that she owned, but her existence in Cairo’s chaotic streets.
All photos are courteousy of the Documentary These Girls, directed by Tahani Rashed.
The documentary is available in 8 parts on youtube.