I grew up watching films about the 1952 revolution in which the army removed King Farouk with popular support. Police brutality, government corruption, military deeds and dreams of social justice shaped the films of the 1950s and 1960s.
Almost 60 years went by, and a new revolution popped up calling for the same values its predecessor had promised, strived for and failed to achieve.
On January 28, 2011, I got stuck in a building off Galaa Square in Dokki, after a march heading to Tahrir was attacked by security forces using birdshot and tear gas. Everyone gasped for breath, helped whoever they could and squirted cola in each other’s faces. Also stuck in the building was director Khaled Youssef (Heena Maysara, Heya Fawda), and I found my mind going to cinema: Would this very scene make it into one of his future films?
The outpouring of moving images from the 2011 Tahrir sit-in made me, and many others, ponder in a wider sense how cinema was going to relay this historical moment to future generations. How would filmmakers engage with these images, stories, intense thoughts and feelings? What would become the iconic film about this revolution?
Many filmmakers have stated that time needs to pass for the events to be digested, but several features have already been produced, each looking at the revolution through specific stories and genres. I spent the last few weeks watching and sometimes re-watching these films to see how approaches have changed over the past five years and what it says about where we are now.
Many films released in the months immediately following the revolution have undercooked filmmaking in common. Sameh Abdel Aziz’s Sarkhet Namla (The Scream of an Ant, 2011), for instance, was finished before the revolution but had its ending changed to include it, lead actor Amr Abdel Galil told entertainment magazine Bos wa Tol in 2011. The film melodramatically examines several issues that prompted the revolution, such as police brutality, class divides, corruption and poverty. It’s all over the place, trying to put all of Egypt’s problems into one pot, but essentially serving it unfinished.
Al-Fagomy (2011) is a biopic of revolutionary poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, and although the film’s narrative is dull, like a pedagogical documentary for use in history classes, it does provide context to Egypt’s long revolutionary struggle. Negm and composer Sheikh Imam have been respected voices of dissent since the Nasser era, and they dominated the soundtrack of the Tahrir protests.
The film ends after the 1977 bread riots, when more than 800 citizens were killed while protesting increasing prices. Then, all of a sudden, we see a scene from Tahrir in 2011 and Negm as an old man. To me, it feels unfitting and unnecessary to include the revolution in such a manner. It needed context and a look at Negm’s participation and poetry during that time. Khaled al-Sawy gives a strong performance, but sadly the film is weak cinematically and doesn’t do justice to Negm’s long, brave journey or his iconic body of work.
Of all the films I saw, Tarek Abdel Moaty’s Haz Saeed (Saeed’s Luck, 2012) was the hardest to get through. Saeed (Ahmed Eid) is a street vendor who aspires to marry his fiancée and find an apartment. As he’s making a shady deal with a contractor to get young people to drop their government housing, making way for a lucrative housing project, the revolution breaks out. Saeed’s Luck tries too hard to be funny, relying on clichéd stereotypes of leftists and Islamists. Frankly, it’s a reminder of how Egypt’s cinematic standards can easily fall short even though it has the region’s oldest, most active film industry. The film concludes with the revolution succeeding, but Mubarak’s trial indefinitely postponed.
Ibrahim El Batout‘s Al-Sheta Elifat (Winter of Discontent, 2012) deals directly with the revolution’s events. The scenes set in Tahrir were actually shot during the protests, as Batout already knew he would make a film about them. I was disappointed when I saw it at the 2012 Cairo Film Festival, maybe partly because the revolution was still unfolding. But re-watching it now after seeing all the other commercial releases, I developed a respect for it as some sort of document of those 18 days in 2011 for future generations.
Many scenes resonate with me: an interrogation scene of arrested protesters at a makeshift prison, sequences showing complex, problematic power trips at civilian-run checkpoints and unusually moving scenes of State Security torture. While the film has flat characters and minimal depth, I think it’s worthy because it captures the spirit of Tahrir in 2011, its uncompromising desire for change.
In Baad al-Mawkeaa (After the Battle, 2012), veteran filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah zooms in on the infamous Battle of the Camel, when pro-Mubarak protesters (largely believed to be paid) barged into Tahrir — some on horses and camels — to attack the sit-in.
A horse rider (Bassem Samra) lives off tourism near the pyramids, and is bribed by National Democratic Party (NDP) members to participate in the attack. A young, revolution-supporting advertising executive (Menna Shalaby) volunteers with activist groups to spread notions of participation and democracy. Their two worlds collide, reflecting a dream of abolishing class divides. She struggles to reach out to his community, however, due to former NDP members saying she takes money from abroad to corrupt Egyptian minds, a common smear tactic that emerged at the time and still persists.
The film tackles events between Mubarak’s toppling and the massacre of Coptic protesters in front of the Maspero television building in October 2011. It captures telling details of people’s aspirations, the volunteering energy of the upper classes for political education, and the shame that came to families who supported the former regime. That said, its themes of class division, the gender gap and defamation of activists are underdeveloped. It ends up simply reproducing slogans and stories without really questioning them.
Febrayer al-Aswad (Black Friday, 2012) has a creative, original plot, but doesn’t give itself the chance to truly develop its content. A black comedy by Mohamed Amin (A Cultural Film, The Night Baghdad Fell), it stars the late Khaled Saleh as a patriotic sociologist from a family of under-appreciated scientists. It starts a year before the revolution and ends abruptly with its outburst.
Following an incident that makes the family feel unsafe in the country, they decide the only way to survive in Egypt is either to marry into the elite powers or immigrate. The film follows the family’s repeated, absurd attempts to achieve either of these goals. Somewhat funny and entertaining, it essentially follows the same recipe as the director’s previous socio-political comedies, with the revolution serving merely a final comment on hope for potential change.
An almost silent film by Ahmad Abdalla (Microphone, Decor), Farsh wa Ghata (Rags and Tatters, 2013) tells a story from outside Tahrir Square. Unlike its predecessors, Rags and Tatters really experiments with form and content.
Starring Asser Yassin, it follows an anonymous prisoner who escapes during the security vacuum following the January 28 protests and hides out in a marginalized community in Cairo’s outskirts during the Tahrir sit-in. In lieu of dialogue, Abdalla relies on the camerawork of Tarek Hefny (also Microphone, Decor) to tell the story of the character’s attempt to get a mobile phone video of the prison break to the media.
While it’s experimental to the point of being patchy, especially in terms of audience engagement and storytelling, Rags and Tatters is a unique cinematic experience and an ode to those marginalized during this public outburst — whether by choice or inadvertently. In trying to step out of the mould of creating films about significant historical events, it became an artwork that challenges notions of how a film should be.
In 2014, Batout returned with a thriller called El-Ott (The Cat, also starring Amr Waked, and also filmed by Tarek Hefny), which, like his previous feature, takes the revolution as its frame of reference. But like Rags and Tatters, it tells a story with the revolution as backdrop, not epicenter.
Centered around the rise of organized crime following the security vacuum after Mubarak’s removal — specifically the trade in street children’s internal organs — it starts promisingly as it follows the quest for revenge of a vigilante known as the Cat, but gets distracted by mysterious, unnecessary characters and some glamorous mysticism.
Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk‘s Bara Fel Sharea (Out on the Street, 2015) deals with the revolution in a subtler sense. Workers who participated in real labor action in an unidentified factory replay their experience — after acting workshops — to create the film. Blurring lines between fiction and documentary, Metwaly and Rizk relay a central part of the events that followed the initial 18-day sit-in in Tahrir, which manifested in nationwide workers’ strikes in both the private and public sector.
It uses the story of these workers, in which they stood up to privatization and demanded their rights, as a microcosm — as one character states in the film — of the revolution. But Out on the Street doesn’t just stop there — it’s also an artistic feat. Its imagery is ad hoc, and while its political message is clear, it does not overpower its formal qualities or the freedom it gives viewers to see the film from their own perspectives.
Many of these films — especially the earlier ones, those that insisted on focusing on the spectacle of the revolution and those by commercial filmmakers — are underdeveloped and hasty. But there are also some increasingly impressive experiments, mostly from filmmakers who come from the independent filmmaking scene and those telling the story using unconventional methods.
I’m still waiting to see if that Galaa Square building scene will make it into Khaled Youssef’s next film, but it’s fair to say that cinematically, if not politically, things are starting to look up for the revolution. Perhaps this trend even reveals that what seemed to us right from the beginning as immediately cinematic — the big spectacle — is actually not what makes good cinema. Maybe an iconic film is not what’s needed. In cinema and out of cinema, the most progressive endeavors have arguably been happening in the mundane margins.