Khalid Abdalla, Actor, Producer, Activist
Laila Samy, Actor, Filmmaker, Activist
Tamer El Said, Filmmaker
Filming Revolution is a meta-documentary about independent and documentary filmmaking in Egypt, bringing together the collective wisdom and creative strategies of media makers in Egypt before, during, and after the revolution. You are invited to engage with Egyptian filmmakers, artists, activists, and archivists talking about their work and their ideas about how (and whether) to make films in the time of revolution.This project is not a history of the revolution, nor is it meant to be an exhaustive chronicle of filmmaking in Egypt since 2011. It is instead a reflection on what it means to make films in these times. What is the power of the image? When is it effective, and when does it simply join the flow of content, one image among others? When is the short-form activist video appropriate and when is turning to longer-form work necessary or desirable? What kinds of projects are being made? The focus is on documentary and independent filmmaking and creative approaches to representing Egyptian culture and society leading up to and after the events of the revolution. Just as there are many people making interesting work, there are many different approaches to filmmaking that have developed in this period. This interactive documentary database consists of interviews with thirty filmmakers, archivists, activists, and artists between December 2013 and June 2014 to look at a range of projects and their ideas about them, and to begin to make sense of what it means to film in times of revolution.
Over thirty filmmakers, archivists, activists, and artists were interviewed for this project in two research trips to Cairo, the first in December 2013, the second in May and June 2014. The first set of interviews occurred just after a long and arduous military curfew was lifted, part of the state of emergency declared after President Mohamed Morsi was deposed and approximately one thousand of his Muslim Brotherhood followers were massacred by the army in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in August 2013. The second set of interviews was conducted during the election and inauguration of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In both cases, the spirits of most of the people interviewed were low in relation to the political scene but less so in relation to the creative arena. As we’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere, revolution is not a singular event, nor does it happen in a matter of days. It is an ongoing process that tends to be monitored in political terms but has many other facets. Even as the political classes work to reconsolidate their power, on the cultural level the power of creativity should not be underestimated.
There were many I spoke with who were willing to question whether what happened in the years since the 2011 toppling of Mubarak could even be called a revolution. Some called it an uprising. Some called it a rebellion. Others still called it a fiction. Yet there were still some among those I interviewed who claimed the right to retain the word, knowing well that a revolution is no simple matter and that counterrevolutionary forces are always also in play. In this project, we retain the notion of revolution even as it is frequently questioned and problematized. At times it is referred to in terms of the initial eighteen days of the occupation of Tahrir Square, at others, as an ongoing condition, or unfinished project. These inconsistencies have not been sanitized, as these are the confusions wrought by the situation as it is encountered. Is the revolution over? Was it ever a revolution? If so, has it failed or been utterly co-opted? These are not questions for this project to answer. Instead the project takes its cues from the insights of the interviewees, who represent a spectrum of opinions on the matter.
The choice to create an interactive meta-documentary, rather than to either write a book or make a linear documentary about filming in Egypt since the revolution, was a very conscious one. For a film scholar such as myself, the temptation is to write a book, not only because that is my training, but because that is what is expected of me. Yet to position myself as the author of a book about filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution is to put myself in the position of mastery over my subject, a position I was at the outset and also now unwilling to take. I did not experience the events of the revolution, nor am I an expert in Egyptian film. I do not speak Arabic and rely on translation and subtitles for my access to many of the films discussed. Rather than playing the expert, which is all I would be doing, I preferred the position of interlocutor, an interactivity that is amplified rather than reduced by this platform. My questions led to a range of responses, most of which are aired here and can be heard in dialogue with one another, not just with me. My role as producer or director becomes one of facilitator and organizer of the material so that it is accessible and searchable, allowing it to resonate on multiple levels.
Of course, the very fact that I am asking questions, conducting interviews, and subsequently organizing the material implies a directorial hand. My questions, concerns, and recurrent themes of inquiry find their way into the project, as exemplified in the unexpected category of First Person/Personal Film, a subject upon which I have written extensively, yet had not planned to pursue here. However, it was the material itself, the fact that so many of those interviewed seemed to be working on personal projects, which was not something I had anticipated, that dictated this line of questioning. And many of the questions that I had planned to pursue prior to initiating the project, questions about revolutionary aesthetics, for instance, or about militant filmmaking, or about social networking, did not end up being prominent themes of the project at all.
I can say in good faith that it was in the encounter with these lively, committed, engaging filmmakers (I’m using the term to encompass a range of media makers and a range of identifications) that this project, with its emergent themes, was forged. If I had preconceived ideas, they generally disabused me of them. If I had an agenda, it was usually rerouted onto more interesting tracks. If I needed to be briefed about the way things were (or were not) for them, they educated me in the gentlest and kindest ways. What I encountered in Egypt, in the midst of very uncertain times, despite people’s exhaustion and profound disappointment, was what seemed to be an infinite well of generosity—of time, of ideas, of spirit. I had prepared myself for polite rejection, because after all I came to them three plus years after the big headline events, after so much blood had since been spilled, so many allegiances broken, so many from the West abandoning them for the newest cause or craze. I expected people to be done talking, explaining, presenting, as if they were on show. And why should they have thought I’d be after anything different? Yet nonetheless, people made time to meet with me, show me their work, even if it was in the most preliminary stages, and most importantly to think aloud with me, as if they had never been asked these questions before, as if it was the first time they were thinking about these things that had clearly dominated much of their waking lives for the past three or four years, if not more. It was their spirit of dialogue, their magnanimity of time and energy that made me want to make this more than an inquiry for my own edification, but hopefully something of use to them as well.
Many of the people included in this project don’t know one another or each other’s work. A few may have known one another in film school or have shared resources. Some have worked together collectively or in partnerships for a long time. There are overlapping circles for sure, yet there are also people and projects unknown to others, and it is my hope that this project brings people and ideas together in ways that have not happened before. It is, of course, also meant to be a resource for the rest of the world, anyone interested in the perspective of Egyptian documentary filmmakers of what is, undoubtedly and regardless of its ultimate outcome, one of the major historical events of our time. At present it is only available in English, which limits its reach quite dramatically, but given that nothing like it exists on the internet in any language, at least we can say it’s a start.
As mentioned, some of the projects discussed here are in progress. Some may never get finished. Others may be a long way off. In most cases, we were unable to obtain footage from films that were not yet complete, which may be frustrating for the viewer. I determined that it was better to include discussion of these films in production rather than leave them out completely, because in many cases they point to a horizon, a coming wave of production that signals the interests and obsessions of a young generation of energetic and imaginative filmmakers who have just experienced a major event in their lives. They may well not all finish, especially if the government enforces a new and draconian law introduced in October 2014 that enables a crackdown on any project or organization that uses “foreign or local funds” for the purposes of committing “acts against state interest.” Depending on how broadly this is interpreted, any number of projects could perish under this suffocating net. And indeed, laws such as these are meant to menace and ultimately silence those who want to continue to speak out, as they do so ably and compellingly in this project. It is in the spirit of defiance, yet with the express support of the participants included here, that we present this material, these testimonies, and the inspired, creative work that you see in this project.
A note on language: Filming Revolution is predominantly an English language project as it stands, with all of the text and most of the interviews currently in English. 90 percent of the interviews were conducted in English, in part to eliminate the need for a middle person between the interviewer and the interviewee. If the person being interviewed preferred to speak in Arabic, that was of course an option, and the interview was conducted in Arabic by the production coordinator/cinematographer Laila Samy in conversation with me, the project’s producer/director. Four of the thirty interviews in this project are in Arabic with English subtitles (Bassam Mortada, Mostafa Bahagat, Ahmed Fawzi Saleh, and Mohamed Rashad). All of the rest were conducted in English, and unfortunately there has not yet been the possibility of translating them into Arabic. This is an issue of time and resources, as the design and programming of the site would need to be substantially altered as well. We hope to be able to raise the money to do this translation in the coming years, but in the meantime, the approach is something like when publishing a book—the creator’s language was prioritized so that she could work with the material and publish it in a timely fashion. The next step is to translate it.
This project was made with support from the Leverhulme Trust and the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex.
Hüseyin Kuşcu - Programmer/Collaborator
Asım Evren Yantaç - Designer
Ayça Ünlüer - Additional Design
Yasemin Yıldırım - Additional Design
Production Coordinator/Cameraperson – Egypt
Laila Samy El Balouty
Sound Recordist/Additional Camera
Deep Dish TV www.deepdishtv.org
Dictionary of the Revolution www.qamosalthawra.com
Egypt Revolution and Politics archive-it.org
Global Uprisings www.globaluprisings.org
Global Voices - Egypt Revolution globalvoices.org
Globalizing Dissent globalizingdissent.wordpress.comJadaliyya www.jadaliyya.com
Mada Masr www.madamasr.com
Open Democracy www.opendemocracy.net/arab-awakening
Radical Film Network www.radicalfilmnetwork.com
Revolution News revolution.news
Tabula Gaza tabulagaza.blogspot.co.uk
Tahrir Archives (Vox Populi) tahrirarchives.com
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