The 25 January 2011 Revolution was highly visual and performative in nature: the image, or spectacle ruled supreme in the battle for political power. Film allows people to imagine, consume and make sense of their experience of recent history, navigate the present and express their fears for the future.
A strong cinematic and film culture constitutes an important part of Egypt’s national and regional identity. Historically, both documentaries and fiction have played a key role in representing people’s struggles, dreams and aspirations, particularly during times of political and national upheavals throughout the twentieth century.
In the last two decades a genre of film making in Egypt emerged that relied on small budgets, portable cameras, location shooting and documentary style practices. The feature film ‘Microphone’ (2010), tracing the cultural flowering of music in recent years, also showcased the structural and technological changes in film-making that have made low cost, or even crowd sourced films, now possible. A combination of smaller, lighter cameras (often with flip screens so the camera does not in fact need to be held) and easy editing software have decreased the cost of entry for aspiring filmmakers. For example, ‘A People’s Girls’ (2016) began when the American-Egyptian study abroad student Colette Ghunim and her classmake Tinne Van Loon deployed a hidden camera as they walked down Kasr el Nile bridge, thereby documenting the experience of sexual harassment in an unprecedented way. The video went viral, getting almost 2 million views on Vimeo which they used to crowd fund for a longer documentary on harassment and resistance in Cairo.
Since 2011, documentary dramas have featured as a principal means of promoting revolutionary narratives. Groups such as Mosireen have self-consciously sought to provide a visual counter history of the Egyptian revolution, often by exposing official practices of repression and torture through citizen journalism. Similarly, Jehaine Noujaim’s documentary film, ‘The Square’ captures some of the most iconicised images of the 25 January revolution. Tracing the tumultuous course of political upheavals from 2011 to 2013, through the lives of three main protagonists, the Emmy winning and Oscar nominated cultural artefact of the Egyptian revolution has received international acclaim and yet was banned in Egypt itself.
Other documentaries, have avoided trying to tell ‘the story’ of the revolution and have focused instead on more personal stories. This merging of the ‘personal’ and the political in a fairly self-conscious manner is arguably part of broader cinematic changes in the region. Many of the films in the archive highlight individual stories or bring to the fore marginalized people e.g. ‘Trace of the Butterfly’ by Amal Ramsis tells the story of the revolution from the viewpoint of a Coptic woman whose brother died in protests. Similarly, ‘I am the people’, a documentary about the 2011 revolution from the perspective of a villager, clearly sits within this genre.
Fiction is also increasingly drawing on documentary techniques to impart realism and relay the points of view of groups who are not typically given an authentic ‘voice’ within Egyptian cinema, thereby blurring the boundaries between documentaries and feature films. For example, ‘Clash’, filmed entirely within the confines of a police truck, is one of the few cultural products in the archive that seeks to imagine and empathise with the experience of both the Muslim Brotherhood and the police, since 2013.
Some films in the archive lack narrative and structure but seek rather to communicate impressions or evoke emotions. In contrast to certain documentaries that seek to tell a story about the political world, some film makers have expressed, as Lebow puts it, ‘a distinct disinclination toward creating specific narratives of the revolution, or indeed representing its events in any direct way.’ Tamer el Said’s ‘Last days of the City’, and to a lesser extent, ‘Clash’ sit within this category, reproducing the cinematic techniques of citizen journalism and documentary making to give an impression of capturing something ‘real’ if also diffuse. Ahmad Abdalla’s ‘Rags and Tatters’, is a fictionalized account of the 18 days that led to Mubarak's ousting, and its main character is a prisoner whose name and identity remain unknown. He escapes the prison in the middle of the night and the camera follows him through a shady, disconcerting world of security checkpoints, neighborhood violence and sectarian conflict. In this way the film seeks to capture the experience of everyday Egyptians who stood at the margins of this revolution, but whose lives were irrevocably changed as a result.
The distinction [or lack thereof] between documentaries and fiction films is aptly summarized by Bill Nichols. He describes the first as ‘documentaries of social representation’ and the second as ‘documentaries of wish fulfillment.’ Fiction gives ‘tangible expression to our wishes and dreams, our nightmares and dreads. They give a sense of what we wish, or fear, reality itself might be or become.' (Nichols 2001,1). The blurring of boundaries between documentary and fiction is a notable trend in films produced since 2011, perhaps because the act of revolution by definition involves imagining new political realities, and expressing fears, wishes and dreams for the future.
In theory, film production since 2011 has offered a more democratized landscape in the field of cultural production. Young people, and women in particular, have found themselves able to use more accessible technology to tell their own stories about their experience of the revolution. But there are limits to this democratization. Film makers in practice, those individuals with the time, money and skill, to dedicate to telling their story. This raises the important question of who gets to narrate collective memories, and what and whom are excluded in this narrative landscape.
- To cite: Rezk, Dina (2020) Representing, Remembering and Imagining: Film since 2011, in Politics, Popular Culture and the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, https://egyptrevolution2011.ac.uk/exhibits/show/film-since-2011/film-since-2011
Nichols, Bill (2001) Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Shafik, Viola (2007) Popular Egyptian Cinema: Film, Class and Nation. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.
Lebow, Alisa (2016) Seeing Revolution Non-Linearly: www.filmingrevolution.org, Visual Anthropology, 29:3, 278-295.
Mayer, So (2016) ‘Filming Revolution: crowd-documenting the Egyptian Revolution’ BFI, 9 February, https://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/bytes/filming-revolution-crowd-documenting
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