In her latest documentary, director Tahani Rached takes us deep into the lives of adolescent girls living on the streets of Cairo, a place where violence, sex and drugs are a way of life. Be that as it may, the streets also provide these girls with the two things they cherish most -- freedom and love. From the opening shot of a young teen named Tata galloping down a busy street atop a horse, darting between cars and playfully teasing the plethora of honking horns and distraught motorists around her, we catch a whiff of power, not fatigue. It's this scene that defines the overall tone of These Girls, a film that focuses more on the present, and less on whatever traumatic event forced these children out of their homes and onto the streets.
In the case of Tata, she's been calling the streets home since age six, and has since become somewhat of a leader to this pack of rebellious teens. She has an edge that none of the other girls carry, yet they all share the same weakness -- men. Throughout the film, the girls share their concerns and fears of being kidnapped by random men to be held in a shack as some sort of sexual hostage. However, it's not the rape that bothers them -- they're more afraid of these men scarring their face, an act that's considered a major insult and perhaps the worst possible thing that could happen to a girl on the streets of Cairo.
Whether it's sniffing glue, smoking pot, ingesting pills or riding horses, these girls find plenty of ways to pass the time, keeping their few possessions in one or two abandoned cars spread throughout. They sleep in areas where men can't find them. They cut their hair so men can't detect their sex. And yet, when their desperate for money, it's men to whom they turn. When the occasional girl is impregnated, she's forced to give birth and raise her child on the street. As much as we're curious, director Tahani Rached goes out of her way not to let us in on the girls' reasons for living this way. Yet, by piecing together their stories, we suspect they turn to the streets in order to experience what was missing from their childhood -- a family.
Before documenting their lives on camera, Rached spent weeks with the girls attempting to gain their trust and find her story. It's this intense research that gives These Girls a more personal feel -- we're not just watching them from the outside, we're living on their streets and in their shoes. As scary and foreign as a run-down darkened street in Cairo seems, this is their home and Rached respects that. She never attempts to locate or expose their blood relatives searching for answers as to why and how their children, nieces and nephews are where they are. We don't visit any politicians or government officials and, while the police are at the center of most discussions -- the girls are quite proud of the ways they often elude the law -- no cops ever appear on camera.
There's an unbelievable amount of heart and fun in this film, even though the various musical montages consistently reminded me of an episode from HBO's Taxicab Confessions. However, as much as these girls have come to accept and love this lifestyle, there's a lot of hurt hiding behind their smiles. As Tata put it (during one of her rare quiet moments), "We're always sad. Even when we laugh, it's not from the heart."