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The strength of the street: An interview with Marianne Khoury

Marianne Khoury was one of many players in the film industry who felt compelled to involve themselves productively in the 18-day uprising that took Egypt by storm

Waleed Marzouk, Thursday 3 Mar 2011
Marianne Khoury
Marianne Khoury - Photo by Sherif Sonbol
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Producer, director and film festival organiser Marianne Khoury is the niece of world renowned Egyptian film director, the late Youssef Chahine. She met with Ahram Online to discuss the blind-siding momentous event, the Egyptian youth’s abrupt politicisation and the importance of exercising sound and prudent judgment in documenting the revolt.

Ahram Online: Tell us about your experience throughout the revolution.

Marianne Khoury: I had been travelling and arrived in Egypt on the 24th. The 25th January, interestingly enough was Youssef Chahine’s birthday. So we were having a small family reunion at his wife’s place. We talked about what was going on.  We knew something important was happening, but had not yet fully realised the scope of it.

Then I fell sick, completely numb, for a couple of days so I had to stay home, but started filming from my place. I live on the 14th floor in a building in Zamalek, so was able to film the fires in Arcadia, the Socialist Union building, the Intercontinental, the Ahly bank, that entire area. It was incredible.

On the 28th, the Day of Anger, I filmed the protestors on the 15th May bridge. They had cordoned off the bridge and were firing tear gas canisters at the protestors.

When I felt better I went down to the [Tahrir] square and began filming there. By then there was already a massive amount of people there, it was already established.

AO: What struck you the most during that phase?

MK: It was something that no one could have imagined. It was overwhelming, the first time that I have seen this in Egypt. The enthusiasm.. the numbers that turned out. So many different people, living together (practically on top of each other), with different ideologies. But beyond that, the positive energy.. it was extremely energising to be there. Then I had a bit of an incident..

AO: ..an incident?

MK: On Wednesday, the “battle of the camel” day, the situation was worse and there was this urge that I could be doing more. I wanted to help somehow, but wasn’t sure how.

I called my friend [rights activist] Ghada Shahbandar, and asked her if there was anything anyone could do. She told me that the protestors had had a very bad night, and to bring some medicine, food and blankets. I said very well, and started organising myself. I started calling drivers I knew, but they stopped answering their phones. They must have thought: This woman is completely crazy! It was a tense day. I ended up calling my production manager who arranged for a driver, Hassan.

We went to Sayeda Zeinab, dropped off the supplies at the square, then went back to get blankets. I called a contact who told me about a store that was still open in Boulaq Abu El Eila. We went to the shop, bought everything, and then they gave me directions to the square. This was around 2 pm. We went round the Ali Baba cinema, onto the main road there, then I can’t begin to tell you what I saw..

There was an incredible charge at the car, I don’t know who these people were. The entire street came to a halt, and instantly became a scene. They must have seen the blankets stacked in the back and figured out we were on our way to the square. The attack was crazy, banging on the windows.. They dragged the driver out. One guy wanted to get in and drive off with me, so I opened the door and flung myself outside. Then the hair-pulling and assault began.. it was physically very aggressive. My body just went numb; the adrenaline takes over.

In the beginning I didn’t understand what was going on. I was looking for someone to explain myself to, who we were. I’m not generally someone who’s afraid to approach people, so I started explaining myself. But there was no reasoning with them. They accused me of being a foreigner, a spy. I swore I was Egyptian, showed them my ID card, but there was no getting through to them. Like I said, it was terrible.

I had never, ever experienced anything like this in my life. One man took me by the hand to a side street and tried to calm me, but they still came after us, men and women. In the end it was three army soldiers who got us out with the people in the street still chasing after us.

My driver disappeared. I would later find out he was held and questioned for a day and a half. I was taken to an army vehicle near the Italian club, then later the main checkpoint at the Supreme Court. They held me there for a while, checking my identification. I sat with foreigners, one of whom asked me what was going on. I told him I had no idea, the poor guy was terrified.

It was very strange that day. You couldn’t figure out the street’s hierarchy: who’s doing what, who would let you pass through and who wouldn’t, and the youth patrols. Trying to get back home, the army took me in a private car, but every time we stopped at a checkpoint someone from the youth patrols would always say “No, she’s not Egyptian” and we’d have to go back.

In the end I had to pressure the main officer to take me back home himself, even though he was in charge of manning the checkpoint.

AO: Did you feel the people on the street were doing this of their own accord, or had they somehow been influenced?

MK: It was very strange because these weren’t just a few misguided youths. Like I said, the entire street was there: families, men and women, mostly older middle-aged men. I couldn’t tell if they had been brainwashed or were doing this of their own accord. Probably a mix of both, because there was a lot of them. The entire street had stopped and decided that I had to be dealt with, and very violently.

I was okay at the time, but several days later I started feeling a pain in my spine. Friends and colleagues told me that this trauma needs to be released, and one asked me if I had cried yet - I hadn’t.

Later, however, going back to the square and witnessing and hearing so many stories, some very graphic ones, my incident seemed extremely trivial.

AO: How long did it take to summon the courage to return to the square?

MK: Not very long. Sitting at home I wasn’t feeling well, I was very anxious. At home, glued to the television, the tension just builds. When you go down to the square, the energy’s completely different and much better.

AO: The square took on a different character after it was defended in those days, taking on more of a carnival atmosphere. Were you concerned the revolution might lose its momentum?

MK: There was that sense, but when they called for another ‘Million Man’ march the following Friday, hundreds of thousands turned out and we were reassured. It became clear: the movement was stronger than anything; the street was stronger than anything.  

AO: How have these events affected your work? Late last year you were awarded the FIPRISCI prize for best documentary at the Dubai Film Festival for Zelal (Shadows), about the state of the mental-health profession in Egypt, and which you co-directed with Mustapha Hasnaoui. Are there still plans to release this film locally?

MK: I actually only started thinking about whether to screen Zelal a couple of days ago. Before that I was completely involved in what was going on. I haven’t decided yet. The situation is still heated, and it may not be the right time to discuss something else.

AO: Do you have any plans to document the uprising?

MK: The events have been inspiring and you felt courage to do something, even if you didn’t necessarily know what. I’ve been filming since the beginning, without a crew or anything, taking sound and images. Mostly my own experiences, things I saw. When I went down to the square, I realised the best thing to do is film the witnesses, the people and their experiences.

I’ve been going to Pierre Sioufi's (the actor whose well-situated downtown home, directly overlooking Tahrir Square, became a crucial hub for protestors and activists during the revolt) and other places downtown, because I’ve been thinking a lot about what should be done.

On Tuesday [22 February] I went to Pierre’s and thought I’d film him because he had lived an incredible story, with all the people coming and going, and what he felt throughout this. Then I realised that you see the same faces at Pierre’s, 18 and 19 year-olds and I thought they were a fantastic story.

There were many people going back there and, like you said, it became a refuge and major media station, thanks to those young activists that archived lots of video footage, especially since I don’t think Pierre was politicised at all.

Pierre was never an activist, but he saw all these people come round. I wasn’t filming interviews so much as him with these young guys. The young activists were busy putting together a magazine.

And then I found out that a lot were children of my friends – Hani Shukrallah’s (a journalist) son was there and so was Azza Kamel’s (a rights activist) son, an entire generation of my friends’ children.

It was interesting, so I filmed that conversation with Pierre because I prefer that to interviews. I filmed them talking to each other, discussing concerns, etc. They were very dispirited that day, depressed at the turn-out. But at the same time, news of the march had been shaky at best that day, and even the youth coalition had announced they wouldn’t be attending.

Plus there can’t be a perpetual miracle; that would mean there’s something wrong with the mechanism. The discussion was very lively and spontaneous.

In the beginning the first thing that comes to mind is that you’ll work on something like an investigation. Trying to figure out what happened: What were the parties involved? Who were they? This was the first idea, that I would make a 90-minute documentary in that format about the revolution.

But then I thought other people’s experiences were also extremely interesting and this morning I thought maybe I want to do something else.

The documentary will come, because it’s not a film that should be done in a hurry. It can be done, and will be done, at any time when you have the material and the archiving and so on.

But I thought maybe I would also like to share this project with other people. I’m considering a large documentary series, working with other people, co-ordinating this effort, and possibly filming some of it myself.

You can cover many points of view: the police, the army, the shantytowns, the intellectuals, and so on, piecing together a big puzzle that can help someone understand what the hell happened in those days.

AO: The collaborative project sounds interesting, especially with the wealth of material out there.

MK: There’s an enormous wealth of material out there because everyone was filming. The paradigm has also changed. There are no longer isolated reporters and recipients. Now the recipient, once the audience, is very active. He’s filming, doing narration, etc. The conventional roles no longer apply; the roles have melded.

This will breed something new. So you have to come up with something interesting, something special and personal. I’m still thinking about what would be interesting to present.

AO: How do you feel about things moving ahead?

MK: I feel that what happened was very powerful and important. The most powerful thing that happened was the emergence of the street, and that’s still the best pressure that can be applied. Everything happened in a very spontaneous, organic way -- miraculous, organic, whatever you want to call it. I still don’t know what to call it.

What’s going on now is more calculated, we’ve moved into the rationality phase –- the theories and the politics. Also the situation in Libya is currently overshadowing local concerns, because what’s going on there is terrifying.

The residue of the regime has not gone away. And now you have other faces doing exactly the same thing. It’s going to be a very long and difficult process. You have generations of corruption, and you can’t change things, or people, overnight.

I’m not a politician. Of course, my work has to do with politics, but I’m not a political analyst. I’m trying to understand events like everybody else. This heavy dose people just took, politically, socially, spiritually.

This is new to everyone. A processing will have to happen, but it’s good. One feels good about it.

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