½ Revolution plays at the Barbican as part of the East End film festival on 4th July, and will be followed by a Q&A with the directors. It also appeared at this year’s Sheffield DocFest.
Mohamed Morsi may have been sworn in as Egypt’s first civilian president in 60 years this weekend, but there’s little sense of a resolution to the story that began in Tahrir Square last year on 25th January. In his speech on the eve of his swearing in he spoke passionately about a “civil, nationalist, and constitutional state.” Yet try as it may, inspirational rhetoric cannot eradicate the facts: the low turnout for the elections, the military’s cynical seizure of sweeping new powers, and worries about what the dominance of the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood will really mean for Egypt’s minorities. This is a country still very much in political flux. It’s an apt moment, then, to look back on how it all started, when people didn’t know yet the enormity of what they were recording, they just knew it had to be recorded.
“Film from the fucking balcony. Just do something. Film anything, just shoot some footage.” After a brief introductory sequence, the opening dialogue of ‘½ Revolution’ ricochets off the screen. Directed by Karim El Hakim, an American-educated Egyptian who lives in Cairo, and Omar Shargawi, a Danish-Palestinian from Copehhagen, the film received plaudits from Naomi Wolf among others when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Right from the start it plunges us into the febrile atmosphere that heralded the end of Mubarak’s regime. It is an edgy, slickly edited piece of cinema vérité, a stylishly fractured portrait of a group of friends who have gathered in Cairo to work on one film, and suddenly find themselves making another as history overtakes them in a flurry of tanks and Molotov cocktails.
“I’m an Egyptian but I don’t look Egyptian, which can be useful and disturbing at the same time” El Hakim tells me on the phone. “There’s a lot of suspicion of foreigners here, and politicians often play that card to distract people from the real issues.” He thinks Morsi’s election is “Good and bad. The best thing is that we have a civilian president, which was the whole point of the revolution. It’s certainly better than if [Ahmed] Shafiq [Mubarak’s former prime minister] had been crowned king so to speak. The whole country was holding its breath. If he had won, I think it would have been civil war.”
“Being an Arab you have roots in the entire Arab world” Shargawi tells me separately via mobile phone as he cycles through Copenhagen. “I felt I was in the middle of something that related to me personally… ever since my childhood people around me have talked about the Arab revolution.” His reaction to Morsi’s swearing in as president? “Do you want the diplomatic response, or the non-diplomatic? If you’re being pessimistic, everything’s going to hell. If you’re not, this is a new chapter of what’s happening in the Arab world… and either it gets better or everyone goes to hell.”
It is this mixing of the political and personal, of insider and outsider perspectives that raises the documentary above journalistic voyeurism and gives it a stinging emotional urgency. Right from the start 1/2 Revolution conveys the tachycardia of being ambushed by political events, with shaky hand held footage (at some points camera-phones are used), and shoot-from-the-hip commentary. But the artlessness is artful: it conveys the texture of unsettledness that permeates the entire film, allowing the audience to feel the enervation of revolution.
Down in the square we see what proves to be the crucial dynamic of the uprising, though few realise it at the time—the institution of the military’s ambiguous agenda. “We want the army to protect us” the protestors cry at one point. At another, a man lies dead on the ground as Hakim exclaims “The army ran over five people.” Protesters scream anti-Mubarak slogans and display bullet wounds to camera. In From the diminishing safety of their central Cairo flat, the filmmakers recount being arrested and beaten up —an episode which for obvious reasons does not appear on film.
“Hard news” images are intercut with splashes of domestic colour. Hakim’s toddler is bathed as the adults talk about revolution; the friends get drunk and eat dinner together; Shargawi tries to make sense of events on the phone to his fiancée in Denmark. Ironically it is these latter scenes that make us feel that we too are at the heart of the uprising. While the crowds outside are now a phenomenon familiar from newsreels, the domestic details have a universal resonance which make you think “What would I have done at this point? How would I have kept sane?”
I ask the filmmakers about how they view the revolution now, and the resulting election, which last week was described in the New York Times as “the latest grand spectacle manufactured by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”
To a degree Hakim concurs: “The army said it was on the side of the revolution which was ridiculous because the protesters wanted to oust them from power. However, though the army liked Mubarak they were afraid of Gamal. Ironically Gamal wanted to take over a lot of the army’s businesses and bring them under supervision and start to control their budget. So a lot of people say the army used the revolution—some even say it instigated it.” How does he think the relationship will develop between Morsi and the army? “I think there will be problems for liberals, because I believe the army and the Muslim Brotherhood will collude to minimise our influence. They’re essentially fascist organisations—they take orders from the top down.”
Shargawi and Hakim may agree politically, but their artistic collaboration thrives on collisions. “Omar and I have a very different way of looking at life and looking at the movies,” laughs Hakim. “I’m really into very subtle emotions, and following people under stress. Omar loves action, and rough and tumble, and not too much talking.” An understanding was reached when they realised their own story was a perfect prism through which to refract the experiences of last January—“We were at the heart of the storm,” says Shargawi, “and while on the one hand we were living a privileged existence, the moment we were being shot at we were one with the other protesters. It might sound bombastic, but we felt we were all fighting for freedom. Now I can see how naïve we were, but in that moment, it seemed like anything was possible.”
For Hakim, the way forward is to keep using the camera, “I think it (Egypt) was the most photographed revolution in the history of man. You’d have ten people protesting and another fifteen people filming them with their phones. I think the camera is the only weapon we have against the state and against brutality, and corporate media. For people living in a police state, it’s fast replacing the gun.”