How do you film a revolution?
Up-close and personal, or observing the throngs of people? In the palaces and towers of power, or on the streets with those standing up to perceived injustice?
For many, Egypt’s Tahrir Square has become the iconic symbol of the most vivid revolutionary moment in recent history, the so-called “Arab Spring.” When hundreds of thousands of demonstrators gathered in Cairo’s central meeting place to protest Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial rule, the whole world was watching. But the mainstream news media, as always, showed only a sliver of what happened.
Perhaps for that reason, several documentaries have been made about the conflict—and more are in the works—with each one providing vital, yet distinctive insights into those pivotal 18 days that transformed the geopolitical landscape.
One of the first full-length documentaries about the Egyptian uprising, Tahrir: Liberation Square, by Italian director Stefano Savona, premiered at the Locarno film festival in the summer of 2011. The film plunges the viewer into the vastness of Tahrir, capturing the enormous multitudes occupying the square. While one young man appears at different points in the film—at one point, bandaged and hobbling with a cane—he’s not a character, but more of a randomly recurring cipher. Indeed, Savona’s portrait is not intimate; it’s broad and impressionistic. The film observes several heated political discussions involving people on the ground, but those individuals also remain nameless.
Savona is more interested in the sounds, sensations and vitality of Tahrir: the chanting, the singing, the palpable passions, the sweaty masses, the blood, the pain, the fury, and eventually, the jubilance when the announcement comes that Mubarak is stepping down. The film itself has a kinetic quality, coursing through seas of faces, from posh ladies with sunglasses to grizzled old men. In one thrilling sequence, the camera follows a determined woman in a black headscarf as she carries bricks in her clothes to offer as ammunition to the protestors. (The minute-and-a-half continuous shot appears as a teaser trailer for the film here). But if you’re looking for context for the revolution, Liberation Square is lacking.
Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician, which premiered at Toronto last year, offers a more complete, though less visceral, accounting of the Egyptian Revolution. A nonfiction triptych made by three different directors, the film focuses on the protestors, the police and President Mubarak himself (hence the title). While filmmaker Tabmer Ezzat’s first “Good” section offers little further insights into the lives and motivations of protestors, the film gives the struggles of Tahrir a more personal dimension by focusing on the exploits of one amiable photojournalist.
Ayten Amin’s “Bad” provides proof to the rumors about the brutality of the police and the way they secretly infiltrated the protestors, but it’s also a surprisingly sympathetic portrait of the authorities—men that other documentaries often depict as anonymous monsters. The section reveals the police force’s complicated relationship to the protest and the protestors, with confessions of guilt (“What were we thinking?”) and ambivalence (“I too wanted the regime to fall,” one officer admits).
The film’s final segment, “The Politician,” directed by Amr Salama, offers a primer on Mubarak via the humorous framework “How to Become a Dictator in 10 Steps.” From looking at the way Mubarak dyed his hair to the way he came up with phantom enemies and used repressive security measures, Salama’s short offers some essential information for understanding what drove millions of people to protest in the first place.
After the broader examinations of unrest in Liberation Square and Tahrir 2011, Omar Shargawi and Karim El Hakim’s 1/2 Revolution is far more personal. The film, which premiered at Sundance 2012 and was picked up for U.S. distribution by Focus World, combines the vibrant energy of Liberation Square with first-person accounts that should translate particularly well to Western audiences, particularly since Shargawi, a Danish Palestinian, and El Hakim, a Swedish Egyptian, speak English throughout the film.
Experiencing tear-gas grenades, sudden beatings from undercover cops, and the terror of watching men, armed with swords and bats, swarming on the streets outside their apartments, the two filmmakers bring an immediacy and emotion to the horrors of the revolution via their shaky handheld cameras. At one point, they call downtown Cairo a “war zone,” and it feels like it: Not since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has such a palpable sense of violence been captured on video.
Alternating scenes of hostility on the streets with fearful debates between the filmmakers and their friends and family about their futures and the fate of their country, the documentary skillfully balances visceral experiences with hard-won political lessons. Indeed, while Liberation Square and Tahrir 2011 end joyously with Mubarak’s stepping-down, 1/2 Revolution presents a more cynical view, showing the enduring realities of the revolution, and ending with the more contemporary title credit, “The people still demonstrate for freedom.”
As with any longstanding political crisis,
one wonders whether Western audiences will still tune in. Based on the initial screenings of 1/2 Revolution, director El Hakim believes they will. “I have found the American audiences are perhaps the most receptive in terms of wanting to know more about the Egypt situation,” he told me via Facebook (that inadvertent tool of revolutionary communication). “Eyes were opened after people saw the film and there were many political discussions—not only about the reality on the ground in Egypt, but also about how the U.S. and its aid-machine is partially responsible for the military-backed dictatorship that we seem to be unable to shake off our backs.”
Just last weekend, Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison, but was acquitted of corruption charges. Egyptians will vote in their Presidential run-off election later this month.
Tahrir: Liberation Square begins its U.S. theatrical release on June 11 in New York, with a DVD release to follow from Icarus Films. (Icarus also has another Egypt-themed doc Goodbye Mubarak! as well as Arab Spring related films on Syria, The Assads’ Twilight, and Tunisia, Neither Allah, Nor Master! and Tunisia: Year Zero.) ½ Revolution will likely be distributed this fall.
Anthony Kaufman has written about films and the film industry for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Village Voice, and Slate. He is currently a regular contributor to Variety, The Wall Street Journal Online, Filmmaker Magazine, The Utne Reader, and writes the ReelPolitik blog forIndiewire.com.