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INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Michaël Prazan on his two dissections of Muslim Brotherhood history

Ahram Online talks to French filmmaker and writer Michaël Prazan about his recent works on the Muslim Brotherhood: a documentary released in 2013 followed by a book published in 2014

May Sélim, Monday 5 May 2014
Muslim Brotherhood
Still from 'The Brotherhood: Investigating the Muslim Brotherhood' (La Confrérie, enquête sur les Frères musulmans)
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Ahram Online (AO): What inspired you to create your documentary Investigating the Muslim Brotherhood (La Confrérie, enquête sur les Frères musulmans), released in 2013?

Michaël Prazan (MP): It was quite accidental...

A few months before the January 2011 revolution, I was in Egypt shooting segments of A History of Terrorism (Une histoire du terrorisme), released in 2012. Divided into three episodes representing three different time frames – from 1945 until today – A history of Terrorism looked into a number of organisations, with a section dedicated to the Muslim Brotherhood and its relationship with some jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

I wanted to understand this sectarian dimension which isolates the Brotherhood from the rest of the world.

I met Mohamed Mahdi Akef, the Brotherhood's former head, and Mahmoud Al-Zahar, a co-founder of Hamas. What struck me was that, despite their different personalities, they both adopted the same rhetoric, as though they had been formatted in the same way. Both interviewees had a different perception of the world, however, which I found to be false, paranoid and defensive. 

Akef only travelled to conduct Brotherhood-related meetings, but never got to know the Western world and did not talk to Westerners. At the time of our meeting, he was very far from imagining that a revolution would take place or that, one day, the Muslim Brotherhood would rise to power. He did not use pretentious language and at times uttered very direct, frank statements. For instance, he was unable to condemn Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda.

By the time Egypt's revolution erupted I was already in Paris. The Muslim Brotherhood seemed then to be the most structured force and, to me, there was no doubt they would take over power. I told my producer it was very important to make a movie about the Brotherhood who, back then, was not well known in Europe, particularly France. And this is how it all began...

AO: How did you proceed?

MP: As mentioned, I already had some knowledge of the Muslim Brotherhood, but there was much preparatory work to conduct before returning to Egypt. I read the founding texts -- such as the writings of Hassan Al-Banna and Sayed Qutb -- and I consulted a number of scholars, some of whom are probably not widely known in France.

The preparation of the film took nearly eight months, during which I accumulated knowledge and contacted a number of Muslim Brotherhood representatives to hear about the history of the movement, its ideology and goals. I knew they would not share everything with me, and that there would be many gray areas for me to clear. During the data collection, we also noticed that when they address their audience, the Brotherhood's rhetoric becomes very different, as some statements made during public declarations were the opposite of what had been privately said to me.

AO: Do your documentaries always talk about politics?

MP: Not necessarily. They are mainly historical. I try to trace the genealogy of today's world. I look into contemporary phenomena and go far back into the past, trying to understand how history resolves those issues. This is probably what mainly guides a number of my projects, films and writings.

Muslim Brotherhood
Still from 'The Brotherhood: Investigating the Muslim Brotherhood' (La Confrérie, enquête sur les Frères musulmans)

AO: Your documentary film was quickly followed by a book titled Muslim Brotherhood: Investigating the Latest Totalitarian Ideology (Frères Musulmans: Enquête sur la dernière idéologie totalitaire), released in 2014. Did you need to complete your film?

MP: When you make a two-hour documentary, it is very difficult to sustain the educational aspect while keeping the audience in suspense. This is especially challenging when the movie portrays a topic unfamiliar to the spectators. One is never able to say everything in one movie. Of course, this is how documentary making works: it is an exercise in the synthesis of simplification supported by image, which can be much more powerful than words.

Investigating the Muslim Brotherhood closes with Mohamed Morsi's presidential campaign. I was exhausted from work and the numerous meetings I had with Brotherhood members. Pascal Brutenaire, a friend who works at the Editions Grasset publishing house, convinced me that a book would be equally important and an opportunity to go further, to discuss details. The book, Muslim Brotherhood: Investigating the Latest Totalitarian Ideology, stops right after the fall of the Brotherhood.

AO: The title of the book is more intriguing than the one given to the film...

MP: I did not yet know the end of the story while making the documentary, or that the Muslim Brotherhood regime would only last such a short period. It was a surprise. In the film's opening credits, I ask this question: Is the Muslim Brotherhood's the last totalitarian ideology of the 20th century? In the book, I answer this question with a more profound and affirmative manner. I show that the Muslim Brotherhood does not represent Islam, that it is a very particular ideology that has much to do with fascism, communism.

And what is a totalitarian ideology? It is a system of rigid thinking? Is it an ideology that embodies the best of this world, and if we do not become part of this 'brave new world', we are not part of society? For sure, this is a very authoritarian vision of power and the state.

It is only enough to read a 50-point programme written by Hassan Al-Banna to spot words such as 'punishment', 'sanctions' and other very repressive vocabulary. The Brotherhood's ideology aims for the globalised world with a global caliphate and an Islamic society. That's the supreme goal they wish to achieve.

AO: What was the audience's reaction upon the film's release?

MP: The documentary was broadcast on France 3 in 2013 and twice more in 2014, which testifies to the channel's courage. The Muslim Brotherhood is all over Europe, particularly in France, and the film reveals a lot about it. I got good reviews from the press, including newspapers and magazines.

AO: Will there be a second part to complement the documentary?

MP: It is possible. We need to wait and observe the developments -- not only in Egypt, but also in Tunisia and Morocco, as well as Europe. I know that some leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood will seek refuge in Britain and elsewhere.

 

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