Cairo Drive, which has its world premiere in Abu Dhabi’s Documentary Competition tonight, shows an intimate portrait of Cairo’s 20 million inhabitants — inside its 14 million vehicles.

Sherief Elkatsha, who splits his time between New York City and Cairo, directs the feature documentary, which shows the Egyptian culture as seen through the drivers and backseats of Cairo’s hectic traffic. If that sounds boring, it’s certainly not — the film buzzes with life and energy amidst the traffic jams. “I wanted to get behind the headlines that people have seen. It’s a good background to the politics and what people see in the headlines.” It also shows a hearty Egyptian sense of humour, rarely seen by international audiences.

The film is a bit different from the more character driven films that Elkatsha previously worked on — he co-directed Egypt: We Are Watching You, about female activists, and was the cinematographer on Cairo Garbage.

“I really wanted to make a film about not only one or two characters but to zoom out. To pull the canvas back and look at the city as a whole,” the director tells Screen in Abu Dhabi in advance of the film’s world premiere.

Delving into those millions of people on Cairo’s roads seemed like a good way to show a new side of the city, he says. “Getting from point A to point B is a struggle for everyone, it’s democratic, everyone is in there. There is where Egypt’s attitude is most prevalent…Windows are open, you’ve communicating. This is the Cairo that I love.”

The film spotlights everyone from traffic wardens to taxi drivers to kids cruising at night. There are also road tragedies and one live accident involving a pedestrian hit by a car.

Elkatsha started filming in 2009 and by 2011 thought he was done. That’s when the revolution changed everything. “It’s like it was in Act 3 a big change came and we had to respond. For most filmmakers, it was a big gamechanger. I was in Brooklyn and suddenly I had to get to Cairo.”

But his aim was to show the Arab Spring as part of Egyptian identity, not to make his whole film suddenly about the revolution. “Politics are part of the Egyptian culture, but I had to keep stepping back because this isn’t a political film,” he explains.

“If you make a film about Cairo without acknowledging it — people would think it’s an antique…It is not a revolution movie but I like to think it drives around the revolution.”

Finding subjects that let him ride along on their journeys was one of the hardest aspects of filming — it’s not like he was riding around with a single taxi driver, there are dozens of subjects. “Each and every day I had to explain myself, and in 2009 people were very suspicious of being filmed.” They relaxed when he explained his aims and because it wasn’t a big crew, sometimes just him with a camera. He shot over 200 hours of footage over three years.

Elkatsha edited the bulk of the project himself, but turned to crowdfunding on Indiegogo to raise $33,000 to hire an editor (Pierre Haberer) to help him finish the project.

He’s proud that the world premiere is in Abu Dhabi, a festival he finds very welcoming. “I like how they are supporting and nurturing the Arab spirit more than some international festivals.”

His next project might again be theme, not character, driven — as he is currently researching female drummers in the Middle East.