Egypt Rising: A series of documentaries without any clear vision

Menna Taher, Saturday 26 Mar 2011

Among the many initiatives that the American University in Cairo (AUC) is doing regarding the uprising in Egypt, is a one-week documentary festival entitled 'Egypt Rising'

Documentary Festival

The series started on 20 March with three documentaries shedding light on different communities in Egypt; the residents of Faggala, the garbage men in Mansheyet Nasser and the Bedouins in Sinai.

In Stories of Al-Faggala by Mohamed Abdelbary, the community of Al-Faggala is captured through Abdelbary’s adventures with the youth of the district, where he meets many people, old and young and talks to them about their lives and their past, and the changes that have taken place in the area.

From being one of the main cultural centres in Egypt, Faggala is now more known for selling stationary and ceramics. The documentary was fresh, dynamic and nostalgic at the same time.

On 21 and 22 March the theme was neighbouring nations. Some of the films were irrelevant and devoid of any meaning, such as the four-minute Camelrama. The film depicts camels walking in the desert and includes footage of an empty maze, with Oriental music in the background. A question we would ask is: Why was such a film included, despite its very short duration?

Fashioning Faith, also among the neighbouring nations theme, was a very clichéd film regarding the fashion lines that accommodate Muslim women living in the US.

The film may be commended by foreigners who think it is great that Muslims have a way of expressing their own identity and faith in the US, yet the film as a whole was dull and the characters presented were uninteresting.

In one scene, a television show explaining how to be fashionable and still wear the veil, was just an emulation of American fashion shows, so it seems that while trying to find their own identity they manage to express it through the same means they were staying away from.

Two very interesting films however, were Degrees of Incarceration and Ticket from Azrael. The former is about Palestinians in refugee camps, who were imprisoned by Israeli soldiers at the age of 15 and 16, for throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails at military tanks.

It portrays the frustration of these boys’ parents and how they struggle just to visit their sons and in some prisons siblings are not even allowed to visit. Not only do they face torture in prisons, but also are prevented from hugging their loved ones and had to go on a hunger strike just to attain better living conditions in the prisons.

One of the most interesting scenes was of the prisoners’ parents outside the prison walls, banging on spoons with empty plates, to show solidarity with their sons on hunger strike inside.

Ticket from Azraelexplores the life of the workers in the tunnels that run from Gaza to Egypt and bring in food and goods.  The film looks at the dangers of their jobs and how each time they work on digging the tunnels they are risking their lives, which explains the title.

On 24 March, a number of short documentary films were screened, along with two films about Sudan’s cultural industry and a longer film discussing Egypt’s history through the upscale area of Garden City.

Among the short documentaries was Sura, which was a montage of different black and white pictures along with some speeches of Gamal Abdel Nasser, with Abdel Halim’s song Sura and Salah Jaheen’s quartets sung by Sayed Meckawy in the background.

All these elements were put together haphazardly. It seems that the documentary did not take its time to develop. The narration throughout the documentary discusses  people’s aggressive approach to photographers and how it has changed after the revolution.

Tawasol, a beautiful ode to silence, served as a much-needed prelude to the ‘Egypt Rising’ series. The film very simply expressed the idea of connection to others through silence.

It started out with the story of Babel, followed by several shots of close-ups of mouths uttering nonsense. Then it portrayed deaf children using sign language and ended with a great Charlie Chaplin scene.

Perhaps its relation to current events is not obvious, however with the media outlets bombarding citizens with information, lies and different point of views, well-known figures as well as different citizens expressing their conflicting views, the idea that the more one talks, the more that words stop making sense does hold true. There seems to be lot of communication, yet no connection and this is ultimately the main idea of the film.

Documentaries such as Living in the Nile and I Am George were interesting but not outstanding. The former followed a man who works as a fisherman in the morning  and rents a boat in the evening. He talks about the problems he faces on a daily basis with permits and such and the scarcity of fish in recent years. It was nicely shot and captured a melancholy tone.

 I Am George, follows an aspiring Christian actor living in Shubra. In one instance he explains how he went to an audition for a television  series and after the director showed his interest in his skills, he asked him to choose a screen name other than George, which he refused to do.  

He never got a call back. What was interesting was George explaining how the church provides everything for Christians, so  that they do not have to try searching for it outside.  George participates in plays held by his church.

Article 212, a satiric short about Egypt’s constitution and how Egyptians follow their own laws was funny, perceptive and light. “I will make another one about the amendments,” said Karim El Shenawy its filmmaker. The short film was very popular and is widely-known on Youtube and Facebook.

Tahany Rached’s Neighbours was interesting yet too long. It encapsulated the history of Garden City through the accounts of very different individuals.

It begins with accounts of aristocrats raving about the glories of the past. At one point it reached a stage where it became intolerable. How long can one endure listening to people talking about how great it was to live in a palace and how the area has suffered because of the noise and cars?

Another  point elaborated on was the existence of the American Embassy in the area and the tight security measures which has affected small shops and grocery stores nearby. In an infuriating segment, the American Ambassador talked about planting trees to beautify the area, yet still retain those security measures.

However, in the second half of the documentary there were a number of interesting characters. There was the visual artist Adel El Siwi, a valet, and a family living on the roof.

The film ended with an interview with the very interesting Mahmoud Amin El Alem, a communist philosopher and thinker. His light approach to life was endearing as he joked about everything.

“Here are pictures of my family, and a picture of Abdel Nasser. He imprisoned me several times,” he said laughing. “I used to write a lot of poetry.  But I stopped when I got too involved in politics.”   

El Alem explained that he didn’t get into politics for the love of it, but rather to grant people the right of living a life they deserve. He talked about how many things one takes for granted, like the beauty of water. “Have you ever wondered about water and its essence? How this substance relieves the person and quenches ones thirst?” he asked and said that many do not even have access to pure water.

The documentary film festival is still on with its final screenings on 26 March. However as a whole the festival, its organisation and choice of films raises many questions.

It is no surprise that the AUC is using the revolution for self-promotion in many aspects. There are several courses that were added to the curriculum, and discuss Egypt’s history in the context of the 25 January uprising, and the documentary series seems to go along those lines.

One has to wonder why the series on documentaries screened by AUC is called ‘Egypt Rising’ when it includes many films not related to Egypt, or the revolution for that matter. 

Why does the poster show three pictures of the 25 January uprising, when these pictures are not relevant to the documentaries? 

On what basis were these documentaries chosen since they seem to be random and lacking vision - not the documentaries per se, though some did, - but the choice in general?

It is also interesting to see the change of address for the AUC campus, not the Downtown Campus as previously written  in brochures, but now called the Tahrir Square campus.

The documentaries festival has also suffered from a lack of organisation, as two films were damaged during their screening and the audience was sent away and the films never shown. Hopefully this will not be repeated on the last day of screenings.

The last day of the series will take place on Saturday 26 March.

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