- Life Style
ISMAILIA — Among the featured programs at the 15th Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentary and Short Films was one titled “Revolution as seen by the other,” a selection of films made by non-Egyptians about the 25 January revolution.
The program was shown at the garden of the Suez Canal Authority Club, and dubbed “Screen on the Green.” Five films were screened in the program: “Tracks of Cairo,” a two-part German production by Alexander Berief and Yohanez Roscam, the Norwegian-Greek production “Back to the Square” by Petr Lom, “Tahrir, Liberation Square” by the French Stefano Safona, “Toppling A Tyrant: Egyptian Style” by Lory Philips from the UK, and finally the Danish-Egyptian coproduction “½ Revolution” by Omar Shargawi and Karim al-Hakim.
Despite the diverse backgrounds of the filmmakers, the five films seem to share similarities in terms of technique as well as intellectual and political positions, reflecting a common way of representing and understanding the Egyptian revolution by foreign filmmakers.
Most of the films were made by chance, as the filmmakers happened to be in Egypt when the street protests broke out last year. Some were in Egypt on vacation; others were working on different film projects. But the intensity of the events throughout the past year made them take a different route. Many simply began documenting what was happening around them with the purpose of recording an important moment rather than having a clear vision for a film in mind.
We see this clearly in “Tracks of Cairo.” Berief and Roscam were making a film about Egyptian underground music in December 2010. When the revolution broke out, the film project came to a halt; yet a new project was inspired by current events. Their vision for the film developed and became centered on Tahrir Square, especially with the creative production that was witnessed during the protests, from music concerts to improvised performances and poetry recitals. The filmmakers continued to focus on underground bands, but they had become more visible because of the revolution.
In “1/2 Revolution,” we also see a group of friends and their families coming to Cairo on vacation and suddenly finding themselves entangled in the street movement. They start documenting the events to try to understand what is happening around them. Philips, the filmmaker behind “Toppling A Tyrant: Egyptian Style” was also conducting interviews with protesters in Tahrir Square, trying to learn more about what was happening during the 18 days. And after Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, he discovered he had enough material to make a film documenting the early days of the revolution.
Another common feature of the five films is that they were all filmed using digital and hand held cameras, allowing the filmmakers to move around easily, although the quality of the filmed material could be better. The revolution took the filmmakers by surprise, and like protesters they sought to document it with what was available, from small cameras to cellphone cameras. Some of the filmmakers also used the footage citizen journalists shot and shared online to document what was happening and mobilize those who were at home and were only shown a particular perspective of the street movements. We see this emotional intensity clearly in “1/2 Revolution,” “Toppling a Tyrant: Egyptian Style,” “Tahrir, Liberation Square,” as well as the archival material used in “Tracks of Cairo.”
Much of the footage recorded by the foreign filmmakers seems like hard news coverage, as if the filmmakers had become war reporters, prioritizing capturing the events over artistic qualities.
This style persisted in films that expanded their focus beyond the 18 days. Although “Tracks of Cairo” was based mostly on interviews with musicians and bands who took part in the revolution, the filmmaker presented the interviews in a style very similar to those conducted with protesters in the square.
Another interesting feature in most of the films is the focus on the creative banners protesters held in Tahrir Square. Most of the filmmakers know very little Arabic, if any. Yet, they captured the humorous lines protesters came up with to criticize and ridicule Mubarak and his regime, a characteristic of the revolution that caused it to be known worldwide as the “Laughing Revolution.”
But as much as the filmmakers highlighted humor, they also focused on scenes of violence and sorrow from the Qasr al-Nil Bridge clashes between protesters and police forces on 28 January to the death of martyrs, the tear gas and of course the infamous Battle of the Camel. Even “Tracks of Cairo” opens with a lengthy introduction about the demands and developments of the revolution before moving on to focus on the arts and music produced and inspired by the square.
Many of these scenes of clashes from the 18 days might seem redundant to Egyptian viewers, yet we must keep in mind that these films were produced mostly for Western audiences who learned about the revolution primarily through international news reports. Many of the filmmakers were driven by a desire to understand what was happening, neutrally, but it was these scenes that the filmmakers witnessed, along with their many conversations in Egypt, that made them side with the revolution and its demands for social justice and dignity.
Despite the repetition in some of the films, they do add an interesting perspective and should not be dismissed as attempts to exploit an important period in Egypt’s history.