As the brutality of police and military forces against protesters has increased across the Arab World over the past year, it’s easy to forget that the region does not have a monopoly over this violence.
“The Summit,” an investigative documentary screened last week at the Berlin International Film Festival, reminds us that while the frequency of crackdowns varies in different parts of the world, when security forces decide to attack, they often do so with a similar level of brutality.
In the film, Italian journalists Franco Fracassi and Camillo De Marco dissect the brutal security crackdown against anti-globalization protests at the G8 summit in Gonoa, Italy in June 2001. The police attack left one dead and hundreds of protesters severely injured.
“The Summit” offers rare insight into a seemingly out-of-place human rights breach that has somehow failed to leave a mark on the global consciousness. Fracassi and De Marco succeed in fully reconstructing the incident, which took place over a decade ago, using firsthand accounts by protesters, chilling documentary footage, released police tapes and emergency calls from horrified eyewitnesses.
The filmmakers, along with an investigator, sifted through hours of documentary footage that show a very different narrative from the official one propagated by local police forces.
Still, some parts of the film are a bit cliché, seemingly influenced by mainstream detective shows. For example, one scene shows the detective-looking narrator sitting in an interrogation room, facing the camera with a raised eyebrow, questioning the "official" version of the story.
In an interview with Egypt Independent after the film screening in Berlin, Fracassi commented on some of the staggering similarities between the police tactics shown in the film and those used by police and military forces in Egypt. These similarities suggest that police forces in both countries were trained in the same place — the US — says Fracassi.
While the identity of the thugs who are believed to “infiltrate” or attack protesters in Egypt, often dubbed “the third party,” remains unknown, “The Summit” clearly identifies a vandalism group, called the Black Bloc, as Italy’s “third party.”
It seems that deploying violent groups to justify attacks on peaceful protesters is a standard tactic in the police manual.
Eyewitnesses in the film testify to seeing Black Bloc members — or “thugs” as they are often described in the Egyptian media — instigating violence, and then hiding behind the police lines as security forces attack peaceful protesters.
Especially resonant with the Egyptian experience are the tapes of emergency calls featured in the film, which reveal that operators responded to frantic callers reporting criminal acts by saying they have orders not to intervene.
Eyewitnesses in “The Summit” also discuss how deploying violent gangs during protests was meant to place the blame for violence and vandalism on protesters and turn the public against them. Revolutionaries in Egypt have been facing similar accusations throughout the past year.
In the testimonials shown in “The Summit,” people describe police brutality as animal-like, giving off a strong stench of testosterone and sweat — a description that could easily be used to describe the Egyptian military forces dragging female protesters by their hair and beating the bodies of dead protesters before throwing them on piles of garbage on street corners.
In Egypt, many activists subjected to torture and serious injury in clashes with security forces are back on the streets, protesting. The Gonoa attack, however, seems to have left much deeper scars on its victims, who were taken by surprise as they were used to police forces protecting protests, not attacking them.
Fracassi, who is both the director of “The Summit” and a subject in the film, as he was attacked by police in Gonoa while working as a journalist, says that making the film was part of his healing process. Fracassi and other victims said that, a decade later, it was still difficult for them to watch the incident or read about it, and their voices shook up as they recounted their ordeals.
“The Summit” thoroughly investigates an incident that mirrors the periodic use of violence against protesters in Egypt, and possibly offers Egyptians clues to find the truth about the events of the past year.