Stills from the movies, clockwise from left top: The Lives of Others, In the Shadow of a Man, Goodbye Lenin, Man of Marble.
Revolutions are infrequent, yet recurring moments in history, and with their outburst most artists become overwhelmed by such phenomena.
The event titled Recording Against Regimes open from 6-23 March at Cairo's Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Centre, which includes an exhibition, a film series and panel discussion, sheds light on how revolutions were documented in Egypt, Poland, and Germany – during the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Faced with the task of documenting the revolution in Egypt, filmmakers took different approaches. Some recorded the happenings as they unfolded, like the initiative Mosireen. Others tried to look for the stories within the revolution, and some even veiled the documentation with fiction.
Two Egyptian documentaries The Noise of Cairo and In the Shadow of a Man were screened along with two feature films by the Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, and the German fiction films The Lives of Others and Goodbye, Lenin!. Screening included also documentaries such as Children of the Revolution by Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz from Poland and two documentaries Cycling the Frame and The Invisible Frame by the Jamaican-born, Berlin-based British filmmaker, Cynthia Beatt.
The dilemma on how to document a revolution, in what form and for what purpose, was heavily discussed in the seminar titled 'Is recording documenting?'
The independent film producer Hala Galal, summed up the discussion by explaining that a filmmaker should not take the position of a historian.
"As much as I respect endeavours to record the revolution as it is happening, I am hoping for a cinematic movement to come out of the events, like in France or in Italy after WWII," Galal said.
The Polish filmmaker Maria Zmarz-Koczanowicz elaborated by talking about a film festival she attended that screened films related to the Polish revolution. She explained that the best film was not about the grand event; rather, it was about the personal lives of the women working in factories and their harsh conditions.
Shedding light on the two Egyptian documentaries that were screened, one could reflect more upon the way a revolution is documented. In the Shadow of a Man by Hanan Abdallah, a deeply personal documentary, falls under the category mentioned by the polish filmmaker Zmarz-Koczanowicz.
In the Shadow of a Man has won the award for best documentary film at the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. It was also screened at the Berlinale Film Festival.
The film follows four different women, from different backgrounds, social classes and generations, talking about their lives in depth. Through watching the documentary one could feel the close relation between the filmmaker and the subjects. Its poignant stories brought the documentary to life and gave it a timeless element.
The documentary The Noise of Cairo by Heiko Lange, concentrated on the art scene in Cairo and how it was affected by the Egyptian revolution. It was shot shortly after the ecstasy of Mubarak's fall. Watching it two years later, we see it as a pale reflection of the heat of the events. As such, the film did not have success equal to In the Shadow of a Man.
The Noise of Cairo managed to capture what one could say as the 'easy' or 'expected choice' of subjects. The documentary mirrored the here and now and did not question the challenges that artists would be facing, or the difficulties that the art scene still has to overcome. It is quite apparent that after many years of art's deteriorating conditions, it would not flourish overnight.
The feelings after Mubarak's fall were 'beautiful,' yet transient, so having a documentary reflecting only this state of euphoria is somehow deceptive and only two years later is considered outdated.
The feature film Man of Marble by Andrzej Wajda was also a sound choice to have in the event and raises several questions related to the documentation of revolutions. It also portrays a very good example of a dedicated documentary filmmaker.
The film revolves around a young filmmaker doing her thesis on life and disappearance of Mateusz Birkut, a bricklayer and worker's rights leader. In the film one could see the difference between how documentary films were made in the 1950s and those made in the late 1970s.
The documentary filmmaker in the 1970s was digging deep in the story, trying to uncover lies through interviewing a number of people. She wanted to find factual data and shoot in a realist manner. The film is critical of the social realist art movement in the 1950s, showing that its categorisation of realism is far from it.
Documentaries were shot as if they were feature films, as subjects are given instructions on how to act. In one scene, the filmmaker asks Birkut to build the bricks in an effortless manner as long as the camera is shooting.
The camera never showed the hardships that the workers faced by always shooting them smiling with pride.
Reflecting upon the film and the theme of realism vs. propaganda was one interesting topic raised by the Polish curator Piotr Krajewski at the panel discussion. He relayed on how Godard used to give workers cameras to shoot their stories.
The film series 'Recording Against Regimes' was a good selection, though not very connected by theme. One of the organisers told Ahram Online that the films screened add to the exhibition for the audience to understand the time frame better. The panel discussion, she said, contained very good topics, yet was too much for such a short time frame.