Alisa Lebow on Filming Revolution

Screenshot of Filming Revolution in action.

Over thirty filmmakers, archivists, activists, and artists were interviewed for Filming Revolution in two research trips to Cairo, the first in December 2013, the second in May and 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 Mohamed Morsi was deposed and approximately one thousand of his Muslim Brotherhood followers were massacred by the army in Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in 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 ongoing process that tends to be monitored in political terms but has 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 called it a fiction. Yet there were still many among those I interviewed who claimed the right to retain the word, knowing well that a revolution is no simple matter and that counterrevolutionary forces are always also in play. In this project, we retain the notion of revolution even as it is questioned and problematized throughout.

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.

The choice to create an interactive meta-documentary, rather than to either write a book or make 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 position I was at the outset and also now unwilling to take. I did not experience the events of the revolution, nor am I an expert in Egyptian film. I do not speak Arabic and rely on translation and subtitles for my access to many of the films discussed. Rather than playing the expert, 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. My role as producer or director becomes one of facilitator and organizer of the material so that it is accessible and searchable, allowing it to resonate on multiple levels.

Filming Revolution investigates documentary and independent filmmaking in Egypt since the Egyptian Revolution began in 2011.

I can say in good faith that it was in the encounter with these lively, committed, engaging filmmakers that this project, with 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 gentlest and kindest ways. 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 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. However, I found instead people very willing to make 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 three or four 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 in this project don’t know one another or each other’s 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. There are overlapping circles for sure, yet there are also people and projects unknown to others, and it is my hope that this platform 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 and independent filmmakers of 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.

The choice to create an interactive meta-documentary, rather than to either write a book or make a linear documentary about filming in Egypt since the revolution, was a very conscious one.

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 leave 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 experienced a major event in their lives. They may well not all finish, especially as the government tries to enforce a 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 in this project.

This project was made with support from the Leverhulme Trust and the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex.

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