INTERVIEW: 'Filming Revolution,' an interactive website surveying Egypt's independent documentary filmmaking

Anthony Alessandrini , Tuesday 15 Dec 2015

London-based filmmaker Alisa Lebow talks to Jadaliyya about her interactive meta-documentary 'Filming Revolution,' a website aimed at creating a database about the documentation of the revolutionary movements in Egypt

Filming Revolution
(Photo: screenshot from Filming Revolution website:

Anthony Alessandrini from Jadaliyya: Could you talk a bit about what made you put together this project: when did you decide to set Filming Revolution in motion, how did the specific form of the project come together, and how did you go about choosing filmmakers, archivists, activists, and artists to interview?

Alisa Lebow (AL): In 2012, I curated a screening program for the Istanbul Film Festival called “Filming Revolution” that brought some contemporary films and filmmakers from Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria into dialogue with revolutionary films from other eras and countries, such as The Battle of Algiers by Gillo Pontecorvo, about the Algerian Revolution; Leila and the Wolves (Heiny Srour, 1984), from Lebanon; and They Do Not Exist (Mustafa Abu Ali, 1974), from Palestine.

For that program, we had the sense that rather than just extracting hurried and harried material from these uprisings, there needed to be some energy flowing back to the filmmakers on the front lines in the form of works and ideas from previous and ongoing struggles. The program was a great success, but once the festival was over, rather than just moving on, I felt as if we had just begun to have the kinds of conversations I was interested in having.

The truth is, I was amazed to be living through the scale of popular rebellion, witnessing, albeit from afar, one historical uprising after the next. As a film scholar, I knew that film had played a key role in all of the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century. I was excited to see how it would transform and be transformed by this period. So I devised a project where I could actually do the research to find out what was going on, starting in Egypt; miraculously, I got the funding to carry it out.

I had this idea, from the start, that an interactive project would be perfect for this type of research, where first of all, you could include a great deal more material than would be possible in either a linear film or a book. But also, there was a kind of conceptual symmetry to a non-linear project that could in some ways approximate the non-hierarchical, rhizomatic, almost structureless structure that characterized these uprisings. At least that’s what I hoped.

In terms of choosing participants, I wanted to talk to people who had been involved in the uprising and had current film projects, either in progress or recently finished. The projects didn’t have to be about the revolution per se, and they could be documentary or fiction, though most of the people I spoke with were working in documentary.

I arrived in Egypt for my first research trip in December 2013, with a list of people to contact, filmmakers and artists who were fairly well known in the international art or film circuits. I quickly understood that in order to do the project properly, I needed to also go outside of those circuits and speak with others who may not have had the same access to international audiences, but who were nonetheless doing really interesting work.

The person I was working with as both project coordinator and cinematographer, Laila Samy, helped me tremendously in making contact with a wide array of people. There are still a few more people I’d like to include if possible, but of course my funds have run out, as has my research leave!

Jadaliyya: You describe the project as a “meta-documentary.” Could you say a bit about what that means, for you and for this project? Did you have models in mind in putting together this meta-documentary, or did you find yourself having to more or less make up a genre for this project?

AL: I guess I was using the term to suggest that it’s a documentary project about, for the most part, documentary filmmaking. It is also, formally, a commentary upon how documentary is traditionally made, suggesting one alternative to how we can present this kind of material. Of course my project is not the only, and absolutely not the most innovative, example of an interactive documentary, yet for the purposes I had in mind, there were actually very few models I could draw from.

You see, I wanted to present the material in an engaging and challenging manner, as well as providing a useful interface for people who would want to use the site as a research tool. That meant it had to do double duty, as it were: it needed to be aesthetically and conceptually sophisticated—and dare I say, attractive—as well as being searchable and organized in a relatively logical way, without appearing to be a kind of library or data base. In the interactive documentary world, you usually find one or the other, not both. So we really had to do a lot of inventing.

I worked with just one extremely overworked and dedicated programmer and a very talented but also very part-time designer, and I think of the back end of this project as a kind of homemade airplane. It’s really a small miracle, and a testament to our sheer stubbornness and tenacity, that it functions at all! I am so grateful to my tiny team at Kakare Interactive.

Jadaliyya: What made you decide to pursue a documentary project related to the Egyptian Revolution, as compared to other popular uprisings in the region? Was it simply a matter of the sheer amount of work being produced by Egyptian filmmakers and artists, or is there something specific about the Egyptian Revolution that you are hoping to document?

AL: In truth, I had initially intended to do something on Egypt and Tunisia, but once I got started in Egypt, it was clear that I had to stay focused there if I was going to do it justice. I had limited time and resources, and frankly there was so much going on in Egypt, that I preferred to just get to know that context better.

I think of the current incarnation of the website as a kind of prototype that can be expanded in any number of directions—horizontally across the region, or vertically to look into some key historical iterations of revolutionary film movements. Ideally, I’d like to do both. That, of course, requires considerable resources and partners.

Jadaliyya: What surprised you the most in the interviews that you did? Did the responses of your interviewees change the way that you viewed the project, or did it more or less follow the ideas that you had when you set out?

AL: Of course, my ideas and the idea for the project were massively influenced by the participants. For one thing, I was challenged by one of the people I interviewed—Khalid Abdalla—who said that if I was going to do this, I should really do it all the way, no half measures. What he was saying was, basically, people pop in and out of here all the time and take what they can, but if you want to do something that might actually be of use to anyone, especially to people engaged in this difficult struggle, then do it properly. I really took that to heart.

In terms of surprises, yes, there were many, including the fact that several people I interviewed, the majority in fact, had consciously and with very strong conviction chosen not to make films about the revolution. There were different reasons for this actually, but most boiled down to the sense that the work of the revolution was far from over and it was not the time to be celebrating or even narrating the events. In fact, many seemed to feel that to make a film about the revolution, whether at the height of the uprisings or in their aftermath, was a kind of opportunism. I somehow hadn’t expected this, but it made a lot of sense.

Jadaliyya: You mention on the site that you also had not expected so many of the filmmakers that you interviewed to be involved in making first person or personal documentaries. Why do you think so many of these filmmakers and artists have turned to making personal projects?

AL: Yes, actually, that was another surprise. A full thirty percent of the people I interviewed for the project were making films from the first person perspective. When I think about films from past revolutionary struggles, personal filmmaking was not even remotely on the agenda.

Given the collectivist political and ideological stance of, say, the Cuban or Soviet revolution, such a position would likely have been considered at best indulgent and apolitical, at worst heretical. But in fact, I don’t think this turn to the personal was either indulgent or apolitical, and certainly not heretical, in the Egyptian context. We have to consider the differences in the situation to realize how powerful and brave it is, at this moment in history, to put oneself out there in a film.

And in fact, everyone who commented on their use of the first person in their films indicated that they did so as a way to identify themselves with larger collectivities, or as Viola Shafik says in her interview, when talking about her film Arij: Scent of a Revolution: “it is a personal collective film, because the ‘I’ that is speaking there is not Viola only…it’s me and not me.” What she means by this is that in a sense she feels she’s speaking alongside many others, who like her are all trying to make sense of the revolution and their place within it.

Jadaliyya: Did you come into this project with a sense of what “revolutionary aesthetics” looks like, and was this something that evolved and changed as you worked on this project and talked to people involved with the Egyptian Revolution?

AL: What I knew, or thought I knew, coming into this project, was that every revolution and every revolutionary struggle since the advent of cinema seems to have had its own aesthetics.

Soviet cinema doesn’t look the same as post-revolutionary Cuban cinema, and that too is distinct from what Godard and his Dziga Vertov Group were working on in and around 1968. Revolutions, or even revolutionary struggles, do tend to be a time of tremendous of creative output, and often some interesting theorizing that goes with it. I found this to be true in terms of creative output in Egypt, yet not necessarily in terms of people developing a theory or aesthetic approach that might capture or represent the movement. But it may well be too early to say.

Alternatively, it may be that the revolutionary aesthetic of all of these uprisings from the MENA region can be said to be the fast and furious, “shoot it, cut it, upload it” snippets on YouTube. The trouble is, that is basically a reactive mode of video making—effective in the moment to be sure, yet unable to take a broader or more in depth view. Its ability to do anything much more than record, report, and/or incite—in and for the moment—is limited. The kinds of projects I was looking at were more formally and conceptually ambitious.

Jadaliyya: You note on the site that at the time when you were doing the interviews for Filming Revolution (in 2013 and 2014), “the spirits of most of the people interviewed were low in relation to the political scene but less so in relation to the creative arena.” Could you say a bit more about this relationship between political pessimism and cultural optimism, as you encountered it in these interviews? Would you say that this still reflects the attitudes towards the Revolution by artists and filmmakers and activists at the current moment? Does it reflect something about your own attitude?

AL: In some sense it almost seemed as if there were two separate tracks of the revolution, and while the political track, as it were, was rapidly running off the rails, oppositional or revolutionary cultural production was very much still on track. But that is perhaps too simplistic a metaphor, because of course these things are intimately related and everyone was deeply affected by what was happening politically.

You know, my first visit was just after a long curfew was lifted due to the military deposing of Mohammed Morsi and the ensuing massacre at Rabaa. My second visit, in May-June of 2014, was bookended by the election and then confirmation of El Sisi as the new president. The people I was speaking with were hardly in a euphoric mood. But the fact that the street uprisings had more or less completely ground to a halt (in fact they had been recently outlawed) meant that people had more time to focus on their projects.

You could say I came late to the game, when most non-Egyptian journalists and researchers had gone home or moved on to the next hot spot. But from my perspective, I was pretty much right on time, in that it was definitely a time of reflection, and people seemed quite willing to not only talk about their projects with me, but to think with me about their representational and their organizational strategies, which was really amazing.

Jadaliyya: How would you like to see the project expand and grow now that it has been launched? Would you consider doing a similar project around a different set of sites and/or struggles, or would you like to continue to work to document filmmaking in Egypt specifically?

AL: When I was in the middle of working on this project, which took two very long years, I couldn’t imagine wanting to do more. It was so labor intensive, with so many millions of details to keep track of, and so many programming headaches to solve, that I just wanted to survive to tell the tale. But now that it’s finished and being met with some interest and enthusiasm, I feel energized again.

And somehow, as I say, I feel ready and even eager for the opportunity to expand the project both on the contemporary and the historical front. For that I need two things: collaborators and support. I can’t do it again with such a skeleton crew, nor could I repeat the experience of trying to do such a massive project on the kind of miniscule, shoe-string budget available to an academic in the UK.

If this project is going to expand, which I believe it should, it would need to be properly funded so that I could enlist a group of talented collaborators and my programmer could have a proper team to work with. That’s the dream, anyway.

This article was first published in Jadaliyya

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