Over thirty filmmakers, archivists, activists and artists were interviewed for this project in two research trips to Cairo, the first in December 2013, the second in May-June 2014. The first set of interviews occurred just after a long and arduous military curfew was lifted, part of the state of emergency declared after President Mohammad Morsi was deposed and approximately one thousand of his Muslim Brotherhood followers were massacred by the army in Rabaa. Al-Adawiya Square, August 2013. The second set of interviews was conducted during the election and inauguration of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. In both cases, 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. As we’ve seen in Egypt and elsewhere, revolution is not a singular event, nor does it happen in a matter of days. It is an on-going process that tends to be monitored in political terms but has so many other facets. Even as the political classes work to reconsolidate their power, on the cultural level the power of creativity should not be underestimated.
There were many I spoke with who were willing to question whether what happened in the years since the 2011 toppling of Mubarak could even be called a revolution. Some called it an uprising. Some called it a rebellion. Others still, called it a fiction. Yet there were still some among those I interviewed who claimed the right to retain the word, knowing well that a revolution is no simple matter and that counter-revolutionary forces are always also in play. In this project, we retain the notion of revolution even as it is frequently questioned and problematized. At times it is referred to in terms of the initial 18 days of the occupation of Tahrir Square, at others, as an on-going condition, or unfinished project. These inconsistencies have not been sanitized, as these are the confusions wrought by the situation as it is encountered. Is the revolution over? Was it ever a revolution? If so, has it failed or been utterly coopted? These are not questions for this website to answer. Instead the website takes its cues from the insights of the interviewees, who represent a spectrum of opinions on the matter.
The choice to create an interactive documentary website, rather than either writing a book or making a linear documentary about filming in Egypt since the revolution, was a very conscious one. For a film scholar such as myself, the temptation is to write a book, not only because that is my training, but because that is what is expected of me. Yet to position myself as the author of a book about filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution, is to put myself in the position of mastery over my subject, a positioning I was unwilling take at the outset as now. I did not experience the events of the revolution, nor am I an expert in Egyptian film. I do not speak Arabic, relying on translation and subtitles for my access to many of the films discussed. Rather than playing the expert, which is all I would be doing, I preferred the position of interlocutor, an interactivity that is amplified rather than reduced by this platform. My questions led to a range of responses most of which are aired here, and can be heard in dialogue with one another, not just with me. My role as producer or director becomes one of facilitator, organizing the material in ways that can be accessible, searchable, allowing it to resonate on multiple levels.
Of course, the very fact that I am asking questions, conducting interviews, and subsequently organizing the material implies a directorial hand. My questions, concerns, recurrent themes of inquiry find their way into the project, as exemplified in the unexpected category of first person/personal film, a subject upon which I have written extensively, yet had not planned to pursue here. However, it was the material itself, the fact that so many of those interviewed seemed to be working on personal projects, which was not something I had anticipated, that dictated this line of questioning. And many of the lines of questions that I had planned to pursue prior to initiating the project, questions about revolutionary aesthetics, for instance, or about militant filmmaking, or about social networking, did not end up being prominent themes of the project at all.
I can say in good faith that it was in the encounter with these lively, committed, engaging filmmakers (I’m using the term to encompass a range of media making and a range of identifications) that this project and its emergent themes was forged. If I had preconceived ideas, they generally disabused me of them. If I had an agenda, it was usually rerouted onto more interesting tracks. If I needed to be briefed about the way things were (or were not) for them, they educated me in the most gentle and kind way. What I encountered in Egypt, in the midst of very uncertain times, despite people’s exhaustion and profound disappointment, was what seemed to be an infinite well of generosity—of time, of ideas, of spirit. I had prepared myself for polite rejection, because after all I came to them three plus years after the big headline events, after so much blood had since been spilled, so many allegiances broken, so many from the West abandoning them for the newest cause or craze. I expected people to be done talking, explaining, presenting, as if they were on show. And why should they have thought I’d be after anything different. Yet, nonetheless, people made time to meet with me, show me their work, even if it was in the most preliminary stages, and most importantly to think aloud with me, as if they had never been asked these questions before, as if it was the first time they were thinking about these things that had clearly dominated much of their waking lives for the past 3-4 years, if not more. It was their spirit of dialogue, their magnanimity of time and energy that made me want to make this more than an inquiry for my own edification, but hopefully something of use to them as well.
Many of the people included on this website don’t know one another or of their work. A few may have known one another in film school, or have shared resources, some have worked together collectively or in partnerships for a long time, but many have not. There are overlapping circles for sure, yet there are also people and projects unknown to others and it is my hope that this website brings people and ideas together in ways that have not happened before. It is, of course, also meant to be a resource for the rest of the world, anyone interested in the perspective of Egyptian documentary filmmakers about what is, undoubtedly and regardless of its ultimate outcome, one of the major historical events of our time. At present it is only available in English, which limits its reach quite dramatically, but given that nothing like it exists on the internet in any language, at least we can say it’s a start. If we can obtain the resources for Arabic translation, we will endeavor to translate everything that is not already in Arabic.
As mentioned, some of the projects discussed here are in-progress. Some may never get finished. Others may be a long way off. In most cases, we were unable to obtain footage from films that were not yet complete which may be frustrating for the viewer. I determined that it was better to include discussion of these films in production rather than leaving them out completely, because in many cases they point to a horizon, a coming wave of production that signals the interests and obsessions of a young generation of energetic and imaginative filmmakers who have just experienced a major event in their lives. As mentioned, they may well not all finish, especially if the government enforces a new and draconian law introduced in October 2014 that enables a crackdown on any project or organization that uses “foreign or local funds” for the purposes of committing “acts against state interest”. Depending on how broadly this is interpreted, any number of projects could perish under this suffocating net. And indeed, laws such as these are meant to menace and ultimately silence those who want to continue to speak out, as they do so ably and compellingly in this project. It is in the spirit of defiance, yet with the express support of the participants included here, that we present this material, these testimonies, and the inspired creative work, that you see on this website.
A note on language: Filming Revolution is predominantly an English language website as it stands, with all of the text and most of the interviews currently in English. 90% of the interviews were conducted in English, in part to eliminate the need for a middle person between the interviewer and the interviewee. If the person being interviewed preferred to speak in Arabic, that was of course an option, and the interview was conducted in Arabic by the production coordinator/ cinematographer, Laila Samy, in conversation with the website’s producer/director, Alisa Lebow. 4 of the 30 interviews on this website are in Arabic with English subtitles (Bassam Mortada, Mustafa Bahagat, Ahmed Fawzy Saleh and Mohamed Rashad). All of the rest were conducted in English, and unfortunately there has not yet been the possibility of translating them into Arabic. This is an issue of time and resources, as the design and programming of the site would need to be substantially altered as well. We hope to be able to raise the money to do this translation in the coming years, but in the meanwhile, the approach is something like when publishing a book—the creator’s language was prioritized so that she could work with the material and publish it in a timely fashion. The next step is to translate it.
This project was made with the support of the Leverhulme Trust and the School of Media, Film and Music, University of Sussex.