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Flood of documentaries about the revolution: Pros and Cons

Although the artistic value of the hundreds of documentaries produced during the revolution is questioned by some, their content is priceless

Mohamed A. Bary, Monday 5 Sep 2011
Filmmaker Neveen Shalaby while shooting
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Tahrir Square, the central stage of the revolution, has witnessed a great range of camera usage from professional cameras to mobile phones.

The videos recorded with personal cameras and phones played a crucial part in the success of this revolution. They communicated to the world scenes of torture, desperation, and injustice as proof of crimes committed by the previous regime.

Material collected served as a base for many documentaries, which saw the light shortly after February 11. However the term “documentary movie” repeatedly used in popular culture can be confusing when trying to understand the film’s purpose. The genre’s diversity has particularly showcased itself through documenting the Egyptian revolution.

With the amount of material, numerous documentaries were made about the Egyptian revolution by various independent filmmakers. The documentaries were aired through various media: YouTube, television, and film festivals. Opinions about the importance and purpose of films on the Egyptian revolution vary greatly between filmmakers.

“I can do documentaries”

Filmmakers used the period 25 January to 11 February to record all the events associated with the revolution. With this footage filmmakers were able to examine many aspects of the revolution.

Independent filmmaker Neveen Shalaby made a film calledThe Agenda and Me. According to Shalaby, the film explains the intentions of individual groups that participated in the revolution. She claims that there are no hidden or foreign agendas in this revolution, only the personal agendas of the people.

“Everyone can add to the revolution using his own profession. I can’t protect houses or beat thugs, but I can do documentaries,” Shalaby said to Ahram Online.  

Like many other Egyptian filmmakers, Shalaby believes that it was crucial to make documentaries in January and February, and it is still important to do so in this turbulent stage.

She adds, “We live in the age of technology and you have to prove everything with a document. Without that the revolution would have not succeeded.”

“This is not art”

Others are quite hesitant and dissatisfied with using the revolution to produce films. They believe that it is detrimental to the revolution itself. Many fear the institutionalisation of the revolution through superficial documentaries. Most agree that the documentation of events is important, but for some, it is too early to make films.

Filmmaker Karim El-Shenawy thinks that the documentary industry has not changed. The culture of what he calls cheap, commercial filmmaking, still exists and is prevalent in the documentary genre. Moreover, El-Shenawy sees that such documentaries package the revolution as something finished and create a nostalgic memory for the days of the uprising.

“Those films make the revolution out to be the African Cup of Nations, as if it is a soccer tournament that Egypt won,” El-Shenawy told Al-Ahram Online.

“The culture of making a film in 5 days, editing it in a couple, and selling it to TV channels still exists. There are no masterpieces out there,” explained El-Shenawy.

The notion of making art remains a problem for many. For them there isn’t enough distance from the events to create space to produce artwork.

Such are the thoughts of visual artist Jasmina Metwaly, for whom the videos she produces and uploads on the internet are not necessarily art, but a form of political activism, to let people know what is really happening.

“My artwork was usually abstract and philosophical. After doing those videos during and after the revolution, I don’t think I can go back to my previous artwork, as now I consider it disconnected from realty,” she explains.

Although Metwaly does not view now as an appropriate time for art, she wants to expose certain realities such as the cruel military trials.

Viewership

With all the new footage, film festivals revolving around revolution emerged; symposiums, art galleries, cultural centres and institutions have been organising various events and special screenings of documentaries.

International film festivals also display a profound interest in films that deal with the Egyptian revolution, something that young filmmakers find very attractive.

The Yallah Film Festival, dubbed as “Freedom in the making” is dedicated to the Arab awakening. One aim is to give a chance to young filmmakers to shed light on how their lives have altered after the revolution. The quality of the material varies, so that even mobile phone submissions are accepted.

The festival’s founder and director Bruno Smadja says that they are looking for sincere experiences of the revolution. They accept a wide variety of views on the topic from all kinds of people.

At the same time, an independent filmmaker Tamer El-Said expressed concern about the rising demand of international film festivals for films about the revolution.

“I think those festivals are ruining the revolution. The stress they put on such productions puts a strong pressure on all filmmakers,” El-Said comments.

El-Said is part of the Mosireen Foundation known to have created Tahrir Square cinema, erected in the square itself. The Mosireen Foundation is a not-for-profit media centre, located in Downtown Cairo with the aim of supporting all kinds of media. The creation of the cinema, brainchild of Khaled Abdullah, Omar Hamilton and Lara Baladi, was created as an alternative means of reaching viewers.

Tahrir Square cinema featured a daily set of screenings, mainly of raw footage of the revolution, using a projector during the July sit-in. There were no standards of quality; any material that documented aspects of the revolution was accepted. The project has been on hold since the army seized control of the square, banning any protests.

The project of Tahrir square cinema attracted many, as the screenings didn’t take place in a secluded art gallery or film festival. It brought material to mass audiences, in the place that is the heart of the revolution.

Visual artist Lara Baladi explained to Al-Ahram Online, “there was a need to use the space of Tahrir Square and to give the audience something special.” Baladi still believes that there is more to that space than just people talking in microphones in the square. “There wasn’t much equipment to start with, but the idea was simple and did not need big budget accessories,” she commented.

“We were looking for anything that would make a screen. We started to make it out of pieces of wood and plastic. It had the charm of the impossible becoming possible.”  

According to Baladi, the audience was mesmerized: “In the first night people were getting really nervous. What are you going to film? What are you showing? But the second the first image got projected everyone was silent.”

El-Said also stresses the “amazing response” of the audience saying that, “People in the square saw themselves for the first time, and learned things they didn’t necessarily get from the media.”

A concept revisited        

Documentaries attract a wide variety of audiences and have done, especially during the Arab Spring. There is an obvious desire to seek alternatives to the televised representations of revolutionary footage.

Film critic Essam Zakareya reflects that this is the period where the imagination steps back in favour of reality. The events unfold faster than we can comprehend and the analytical treatment of events has come too soon.

Zakareya asserts that, “Anyone who claims he can make coherent analytical artwork in such turbulent times is wrong. It will end in a superficial way like Egyptian soap operas.”

However, for Zakareya it is important to never stop documenting events. He also calls for a national project to archive all revolutionary material and put it in a museum. “This could be used for later, when making documentary films,” he says.

Egypt is currently experiencing a period in which concepts are being revisited and redefined. The reasons behind and usages of documentaries are now being explored in the independent film scene. However, this rediscovery is not limited to filmmakers themselves; the audience, critics and journalists are also involved.

“The audience should develop a higher taste and culture, to differentiate between what makes a documentary and what doesn’t,” Zakareya concludes.

One thing is for sure, at times of revolution and with the rapid unfolding of events, mobile phones will always be in people’s hands and documentaries will keep emerging. Time will filter and classify them accordingly.

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