Hungarian Director Bence Máté Digs Deep Into Cairo's Garbage City For His Documentary Film, Koka, The Butcher
Photography: Ryan Rivers
Interview & Words: Bethany Burgoyne
Hungarian journalist and filmmaker, Bence Máté, introduces us to Koka, a man living and working in Garbage City, an area of Cairo that houses both people and pigeons. Pigeon fighting (or shooting, as it is known in Arabic) is a sport taken very seriously amongst Koka and his friends. Under pressure from his conservative community to quit his passion, Koka is faced with the possibility that his pigeon fighting days may be coming to an end. It is through Máté's short documentary film, made over the course of a few years, that we see this sport come to life.
Having been working in Cairo as a news reporter, Máté explains how his attention shifted to focusing on the story of Koka. “I was working in Garbage City and Koka invited me to his pigeon tower. I made a photo report on him and the contests which was a successful story in Hungary, the country where I’m from, so I decided to go back and film it”. Máté leads us through the daily activities of Koka with close proximity. Running as a half hour documentary, we see the main character (and a character he really is!) devote his time to training and caring for hundreds of pigeons in his self-built wooden tower.
To contextualise the importance of Koka’s passion, we witness groups of men all participating in the sport. The scenes where they gather to organise competitions are full of fiery emotions and testosterone fuelled interactions. This focus on masculinity underlies the entire film and, in an interesting way, links back to the symbolic connotations of a bird.
“In Arabic they say that the symbol of peace becomes the symbol of masculinity. As you see in the film, pigeon shooting is not about money, it’s all about pride. Koka says this sentence that “I want to show through my pigeons that I’m strong, so there's a strength that pigeons represent for him. For me I was interested in this community, in this mindset and I think it was a lot about masculinity”.
Máté’s documentary successfully captures an overview of both Koka and his neighbours. Shining a light on the Christian inhabited area of Garbage City, within a city where the majority of the people are Muslim, offers an insight into the relationship between the two religions. “There is no problem there. This is not what you think when you think of religious communities living next to each other, we have other preconceptions and it was an important thing for me to show this”.
Since the success of Máté’s film at multiple festivals around the world, an interesting turn of events led to Koka being sponsored to move to California. The story of this remarkable character seems to have only just begun as Máté confirms the making of a sequel. Koka is the star in this film and as an audience, we start to care for him, understand him and empathise with his passion. “The guy is genuine. Even after 4 years [of filming], he’s still real, there’s no acting. He is tough [and] behaving tough; being a tough guy is very important to him but underneath, he’s very emotional”.