In the decade prior to 2011 many films referenced social injustice, classism, governmental failure to provide housing, education or healthcare, state corruption, police brutality and general repression of freedom of speech.
Marwan Hamed’s Imarat Yacoubian (The Yacoubian Building, 2006) touched on poverty, corruption and police brutality, and Khaled Youssef’s Heena Maysara (Waiting for Better Times, 2007) arguably kicked off the genre of the so-called slum movie. These are just two of many that come to mind.
They didn’t come out of nowhere. They reflected the political dissent building in the country. Students had managed to protest the Iraq war in Tahrir Square in 2003, and their chants quickly took on an anti-regime flavor. The grassroots Kefaya movement spearheaded by activists and intellectuals from across the political spectrum had started campaigning and protesting in 2004. Bloggers and activists took to the internet to share documented cases of torture in prisons. The National Association for Change – spearheaded by Mohamed ElBaradei – gathered signatures to call for constitutional change from 2008.
But three films in particular captured the feel of a society on the brink of eruption and even seemed to directly predict the events of 2011, the media’s response to them, and the continuing general atmosphere of anger bubbling beneath the surface.
Youssef Chahine‘s final film, made in collaboration with Khaled Youssef, dissects police corruption from the core. Neither Shahin or Youssef shied away from criticising the government during their filmmaking careers but This is Chaos in particular had strong revolutionary undertones.
Set in the Cairo neighbourhood of Shubra, it follows a tyrannical police officer, Hatem (Khaled Saleh), who’s feared by the entire district. He accepts and gives bribes, tortures political prisoners and generally disrespects the rule of law.
It’s a classic good vs. evil story, with a righteous prosecutor (Youssef al-Sherif) trying to implement the law in a lawless state and thereby catching the eye of Nour (Menna Shalaby), whom Hatem is infatuated by. The fight for her affections symbolizes directly the fight of the oppressed against state tyranny.
In the – now iconic – closing scene prisoners chant revolutionary slogans and the entire neighborhood gathers at the police station’s gates chanting and breaking into it. The sequence plays out as if it was shot in reference to 2011, when such scenes scene happened all over the country after the January 28 protests.
Like many critical films, This is Chaos got in trouble with the censorship board. Youssef told the LA Times in 2008 that when the script was presented to the board, they wanted to cut out a significant portion of the film, to which he responded that they should just ban the whole film, because he wouldn’t cut it. Youssef said they couldn’t ban the film due to the international controversy it would cause. The film was in fact cut, by two scenes — and he was forced to add this statement at the film’s prelude: “We appreciate the national role played by the police establishment to maintain stability and security. These are just isolated acts.”
In Samy Rafea’s comedy Ramy the Protester, starring Ahmed Eid (The Night Baghdad Fell, Cultural Film), the spoilt, pot-head son of a major businessman tries to get famous to win the affections of a woman he likes from his elite sporting club. On a television program to talk about one of the many Facebook groups that started to call for changing the national anthem, he ends up abruptly calling for a sit-in at the Cabinet until his demands are met — a direct reference to the April 6 strike that happened just before the film was made and which used social media to gather support for striking workers.
While the film relies heavily on stereotypes, overly simplistic characters and cheap slap-stick comedy, it also offers a lot of insights into notions of classism, the burning need for change and the cultural gaps in Egypt.
Ramy’s sit-in of rich young people quickly attracts both poverty-stricken former residents of an informal settlement (the government had evicted them) and Islamists. These three social groups segregate themselves from each other and have perpetual arguments over unifying their demands.
This is certainly what people expected if a sit-in were to happen, and many were joyfully surprised at the almost utopian harmony that did come with the initial 18-day sit-in at Tahrir Square in 2011, where class, religion, gender or political divides mattered far less than usual.
“Leave them, they’re spoilt Facebook kids,” the prime minister’s aide says in one scene, and the government leaves the protesters at the site for weeks due to pressures from human rights organizations and international allies. This, of course, was a fantasy — the 2000s was a decade of protester arrests and zero tolerance of dissent.
A memorable scene at the start of the film shows a worker discussing an ongoing strike at a factory and a caller accuses him of ruining the country and disrupting the wheel of production — two cliches that later characterized media responses to the protests, sit-ins and strikes.
Ahmad Abdalla‘s Microphone was released in cinemas on January 25 2011 purely by coincidence. This low-budget indie film does not directly predict mass protests but subtly captures the sense of despair and suffocation of creative young people in Alexandria.
It also references the killing by police of Khaled Saeed, whose death is considered to have been one of the triggers of the 2011 protests, as well as focusing on the production of graffiti, which would blossom just afterwards to become the art form of the revolution.
Microphone does not rely on stereotypes or cheap laughs. Nor does it try to place itself as a “revolution film.” Its content is layered into the stories of its characters — many of whom play fictionalized versions of themselves — from the Alexandrian art scene. It explores musicians’ struggle to perform in state cultural spaces, their attempts to bring their music to public spaces and the plight of existing in a conservative society where your voice is neither heard nor encouraged.
The film was released just as, for a few brief months, these struggles decreased hugely following Hosni Mubarak’s removal and the country breathed the fresh air of freedom. Only re-watching the film now is it clear that alternative art has slowly been returning to its previous underground nature and the same struggles continue in new trajectories. Specific examples are the multidisciplinary public art event Al-Fann Midan’s suspension in late 2014 and the recent raids on non-state cultural spaces, but there’s also general increasing hostility to artists working in public space, from performance to graffiti.