Egypt’s uprising inspires and liberates local filmmakers

Following the fall of the Mubarak regime, Egyptian artists have been quick to embrace their previously denied right of freedom of expression. First among them are the nation’s young filmmakers, many of whom risked their lives in order to document every step of a process that surprised and inspired Egyptians–and the rest of the world–in equal parts.

For those who witnessed history unfold through news broadcasts and internet streams, it was clear that the situation on the ground was extremely dangerous for those directly involved in it. This danger was only compounded by carrying a camera through the chaos, as that almost gauranteed unwanted attention from state security forces determined to keep their brutality from being broadcast to the rest of the world. For many filmmakers, though, risk was never an issue.

“The world needs to see this,” asserted Khaled Haddad, a 24-year-old amateur filmmaker who Al-Masry Al-Youm talked to briefly during the early stages of the revolution. “Future generations [of Egyptians will] need to see this, and those lucky enough to be alive today will want a reminder of the fact that no matter how corrupt their government is, they still have the power to bring it to its knees.”

And bring it to its knees they did–on camera, no less, and despite the regime’s violent efforts. Mubarak’s ouster was met with a nationwide celebration, the epicenter of which was Tahrir Square. News of his resignation sent waves of elation and relief through a population that had been suffering his iron grip for over thirty years; a historic moment that will no doubt form the climax of many forthcoming documentaries. Documentary crews and amateur videographers were suddenly free to roam what had formerly been a battlefield. Many people whose sadness, or fear of, or involvement in, the revolution had kept them from filming now joined the already significant number of documentary makers.

The unprecedented events had led several filmmakers to risk their lives to capture as much as they could, without having any solid idea of what they would later use the footage for. Celebrated independent director Ahmed Abdallah (“Heliopolis,” “Microphone”) and acclaimed documentary maker Mai El-Hossami (“Agabi”, “Friday Market”) both got involved in recording the uprising, and their efforts ultimately contributed to other people’s projects. Abdallah helped manage an archive of footage captured by a variety of amateurs and professionals, while El-Hossami generously handed her footage over to Ibrahim el-Battout, a pioneer of independent Egyptian cinema and the director of upcoming adaptation “¼ Gram.”

Meanwhile, Mohamed Diab, who garnered acclaim and generated controversy with his recent provocative debut “678,” is currently working on his second feature, reportedly about the uprising.

Egyptian filmmakers living abroad, many of whom had left due to their country’s stifling censorship laws and union politics, saw in the uprising not only a reason, but a call to return. Even filmmakers with less binding ties to Egypt felt the urge to turn their cameras towards the events–several foreign-filmed documentaries are being made about the revolution and award-winning US-based documentary maker Mai Iskandar (“Garbage Dreams”), whose father is Egyptian, is currently filming a documentary on the role women played in it.

Mainstream Egyptian filmmakers have also been inspired. Days after Mubarak stepped down, Khaled Youssef (“Heyna Maysara”, “Dokkan Shehata”) announced that he had already started working on a film about the president’s final days in office. Youssef, arguably the most high-profile director in the country, managed to stay in the public consciousness during the revolution by leading a group of volunteers in an effort to protect the Egyptian Museum from looters and vandals. Actress Ghada Abdel Razik (“Bon Soiree”) also voiced a desire to be cast in a revolution-themed film, although probably as a way to counter her high-ranking position on the pro-Mubarak celebrity blacklist, or as it is commonly referred to, the "List of Dogs".

Conversely, some filmmakers have avoided committing to revolution-inspired projects for a range of reasons. For some, it is a question of timing–they believe it would be premature to attempt a statement on the current situation, still characterized by uncertainty and general paranoia. Others feel that it would be exploitative or opportunistic, and hope to avoid turning the documentation of an historic event into a mere trend.

Regardless of their stance, though, filmmakers will agree that the revolution will have lasting repercussions on Egypt’s film industry. Once a hub for pro-regime propagandists and sycophants, the Filmmaker’s Union has already imploded, with president Ashraf Zaki promptly resigning and dropping off the radar, along with his blacklisted actress wife Regina. Simultaneously, the dissolution of the board of censors has been publicly proposed by scores of artists and intellectuals.

Whether or not these issues will be incorporated into the numerous upcoming documentaries remains to be seen. With the social, political, and even artistic landscape undergoing a series of rapid and turbulent rearrangements, it’s no surprise that even documentary makers remain unsure of what the final scene will be.

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