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Documentary films seizes the audience on Arab Spring day in Cairo

Ahram Online reports on the documentary films featured at the Cairo International Film Festival on its special Arab Spring day on 3 December

Farah Montasser, Sunday 9 Dec 2012
Reporting Revolution
Documentary Film Reporting Revolution by Bassam Mortada
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The Cairo Film Festival 2012 (CIFF) dedicated Monday 3 December to the Arab Spring in a sideline category called Revolution Cinema, with a focus strictly on documentary films, including entries from Egypt, Tunisia and Bahrain.

The 35th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival from 29 November - 6 December 2012 was the first held in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. In its regular programme, the festival included a few films referring to the Arab Spring.

Egyptian film critic Osama Saffar says, "We in the film field predicted there would be a revolution in Egypt way before 25 January [the day of the first large-scale protests]… through the stories and scripts of major films like Ismaliya Rayeh Gaye (Ismaliya Back and Forth) that portrays youth as helpless and depressed, seeking a better life elsewhere as there are no prospects in Egypt."

"Those broken spirits grew their fighting character within a year after the Arab Spring. Yet most films still speak of how we were before the revolution," he comments on the characters written nowadays.

Saffar points to Winter of Discontent as a clear example. Ibrahim El-Batout’s film Winter of Discontent showcased the torture and fight for freedom among youth. The storyline – inspired by the 18-day uprising - was short and gave great license to the actors, who embodied their characters and improvised the dialogue for as much a realistic feel as possible.

Winter of Discontent was planned to be screened during the festival’s opening ceremony, but the opening was postponed and the programme changed due to ongoing clashes in Cairo. The film was screened during the week and it was not featured in the CIFF's Revolution Cinema category, since it wasn't documentary, although it was based on a collage of true stories.

Not that documentary films are of less value than feature films, but for sure they are more "camera on ground reporting" rather than driven characters that speak on reality.

Those "Camera on Ground Reports" were seen in all documentary films screened at CIFF,  like the one on Bahrain: The Forbidden Country by French filmmaker Stephanie Lammorre that gives a unique take on the situation of this country.

According to Al Ahram Hebdo writer, Farah Souames, "Bahrain: The Forbidden Country presents the life of insurgents and those fighting for democracy against daily, relentless repression and violence. The audience was finally able to get an idea of what is really happening in this country, telling a story through the eyes of three courageous female activists who explain how their revolution is invisible and therefore it is difficult to reveal the real insurrection. These are the three fates; three eyes on this forbidden country of the Arab Spring, alas, forgotten in the West. The film succeeds brilliantly to break the world's cliché picture of Bahrain as strictly a place of wealth."

Revolution Talks directed by Karim Yacouby recalls the Tunisian revolution starting from 14 January 2011 until the election of the Constituent Assembly. The documentary is based on footage of several strikes and protests since the uprising up until the building of a constitution. The director depended on statements from people on the ground. There was no storyline, no narration, no sound effects - not even editing. Only a cameraman joining protests to document what the Tunisian people went through to build up their new state.

The same applies to Road to Tahrir Square, a film by Amr Abdel Ghany, which documents the Egyptian revolution through the eyes of the labour movement in the country. Abdel Ghany looks into the roots of the revolution and demonstrates the role of the labour movement.

The list of documentary films on the Arab Spring continues with Reporting a Revolution by Bassam Mortada, a prominent journalist at Al Masry Al Youm, an independent newspaper in Egypt. From its synopsis, Reporting a Revolution is a story of six young Egyptian journalists who tell the story of the revolution while capturing the terror they faced to get their stories out. This news-reporting documentary failed to be screened at CIFF due to the confusion in the schedule rearrangements. On the day it was supposed to be screened, the CIFF held a symposium, which not many people found interesting anyway and left.

The small number of Arab Spring movies gave audiences a glimpse into the countries going through political upheavals. However, a number of Egyptian filmmakers kept expressing their disappointment at being marginalised and the lack of support for their works – especially those on the Egyptian revolution – by the festival organisers.

Breaking the rules of documentaries and the news reporting trend among all films screened in the Revolution Cinema category, Eyes of Freedom… Street of Death by Egyptian filmmakers Ahmed Salah Sony and Ramadan Salah Mohamed, who are known in the field as the "Salah Brothers," gave another original vibe to documentary films.

Instead of reporting news, showing footage and bringing the revolution nostalgia to audience, the Salah Brothers depended on a well-written narration by Nader Refaay that gave a solid character to Tahrir Square itself.

According to film critic and audience member, Mohamed Sodani, "The Salah Brothers managed to make the entire documentary feature their hero of the story."

"Although it is a documentary film, you film revolutionaries managed to have put me in the setting of a tragedy feature film," Safaa El-Leithy film critic proudly addresses the Salah Brothers at the film panel discussion.

The Salah Brothers narrate the brutal attacks from the police force on civilians during protests at Mohamed Mahmoud Street in downtown Cairo on 18 November 2011. The two filmmakers took their cameras to the street during their protests and filmed what happened to them and others.

It goes without saying that within the upheaval of the past two weeks after President Morsi announced his power-grabbing Constitutional Declaration, the attendance at film screenings was affected.

An average of 12 sat in the audience in each hall on the days Arab Spring movies were screened. However, all films brought back memories of the Egyptian revolution and a fire to "continue the fight for freedom and social justice," as Sony states.

Where cinema is concerned, Saffar says: "There is still a long way for cinema to develop, but those young boys have started."

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