Films revive days of Arab spring revolt

First cinematic outputs documenting revolutions and their aftermath debut at Dubai Int'l Film Festival.

December 14, 2011 11:41
4 minute read.
Clashes in Tahrir Square, Feb 2011

Clashes in Tahrir Square, Feb 2011 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem )


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DUBAI - The first cinematic output covering protests in Egypt and Tunisia this year recreates the euphoria of revolutions that many thought would never happen, but reveals signs of the conflicts that lay ahead over Islamist groups.

The last stage of the revolt that brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and then the entire three weeks of upheaval that led to Hosni Mubarak's fall in Egypt took place before the eyes of the world with media and other documentarians on the ground observing events day by day -- unlike uprisings such as Iran witnessed in 1979 or Sudan in 1985.

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In Tahrir - Liberation Square, Italian documentary maker Stefano Savona uses stunning camerawork in the midst of the lively crowds who spent three weeks in central Cairo in January and February in dreamlike sequences which capture the hypnotic chants and rhythms of Egyptian protesters.

Drummers and lead chanters who come up with an innovative array of rhymes party into the night in a record of events that emphasizes the hope of protesters whose spirits never flag and whose means of entertaining themselves is endless.

Young people also have animated discussions about the future, which given the lead Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood have established in Egypt's first free elections, seem eerily prescient.

"I don't know what to think of them (the Muslim Brotherhood) because everything we heard about them came from the state," says a young woman called Noha. "Whether the future state is religious or not doesn't matter, the important thing is that we get rid of the regime."

After news of Mubarak's resignation comes through, the camera focuses on another young Egyptian, Ahmed, who declares in English: "We will have now a civilian (secular) state, we won't have a religious state."

First-hand record of violence

In 1/2 Revolution, film-makers Omar Shargawi and Karim El-Hakim record their experiences of the revolt while staying in a flat in central Cairo. A raw personal account, it captures the violence of the security forces and thugs who controlled much of downtown Cairo outside Tahrir Square.

Shargawi is beaten up at one point, and fearing for his young child, Karim decides to leave. "It's just gonna get worse, this place is gonna be unlivable," he predicts.

Seven days later Mubarak stepped down, but the street is still an arena of political protest and confrontation several months after the Egyptian president's February departure. More than 50 people died in November alone during clashes with police over the military's continued grip on power.

"Things have settled down now a bit but on November 19 the violence really exploded," Hakim said after a showing. "The police and army have blended into some kind of armed force, I'm not sure who they're protecting."

The documentaries, being shown at the Dubai International Film Festival, undercut the claim, oft-cited by supporters of US power in the Middle East, that the revolts were not anti-American or driven by foreign policy concerns.

In "1/2 Revolution" Egyptians chant anti-US slogans and angrily display bullet cartridges and teargas canisters made in the United States. Egypt is a major US ally in the region.

"USA, it's our decision not yours!" a placard held up by one protester to camera says in a third Egyptian revolution film, Born on the 25th of January, the day the protests began.

Rashwan, a feature film maker among an artistic community worried about an Islamist future, said the fear was overstated.

"I think the revolution is continuing. When people are disillusioned, all they have to do is go to YouTube and see all the footage there from before," he told an audience.

Documenting Tunisia

Tunisian director Mourad Ben Cheikh's No More Fear documents the reactions of a blogger, a rights lawyer and a journalist during the latter stages of the Tunisian revolution after security forces had lost control of the streets.

It offers a reminder that although Egypt is famous for its street sloganeering, Tunisia is the origin of the signature Arabic chant of the Arab uprisings, "the people want to bring down the regime", as well as "Get out!".

"If you haven't got it yet, here it is in Japanese," says a placard held up by one protester in Tunis.

A smaller country than Egypt and easier for Ben Ali to control, Tunisia brooked far less dissent than Mubarak's Egypt did, smothering civil society almost completely.

Lawyer Radhia Nasraoui discusses the ongoing events over a meal in a restaurant with colleagues.

"We couldn't even meet like this before, they would have word in advance where we intended to dine," she says.

Nasraoui recalls colleagues whose lives were ruined by police surveillance and harassment.

"We had a revolt in 1984 that was about bread, but this one is different, it's about freedom, rights, duties," she says.

Ben Cheikh said he felt he was witnessing the reawakening of a nation.

"In these two weeks while the world was watching, Tunisians view of themselves changed. I felt it was important to document this moment," he told Reuters. "For the first time, a director could have the ability to deal with real-time events, we didn't have this before."

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