For most people outside of Egypt, the revolutionary events of February—as part of what is now referred to as the Arab Spring—were received via a rapid torrent of images that formed an endless evolving montage on broadcast news channels. Though inevitably truncated, fractured and fragmented by the media filter, the potency and evocative immediacy of these images—images transmitted from an artillery of ubiquitous mini-recording devices operated by the participants themselves—demanded a response. Seen through a cinephilic lens, the images emerging from Egypt called to mind another assortment of images from the previous spring: the heteroglot assemblage that was Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme, composed of footage culled from cellphones, anamorphic video and HD, whose evocations of contemporary global cataclysms economic, environmental and political rhyme uncannily well with the collectively authored tapestry of images that represented the Arab Spring to the world. As is so often the case (for the vast majority of the Western world, at least), the reality of revolution was made inextricable from its representation—a mise-en-abyme requiring a Godardian critical intervention to sift through its proliferating visual traces and restore to them the autonomy they had lost in the rush of narrative.
In this situation, film curation and exhibition necessarily become essayistic practices, critical programs in poetic dialogue with social reality. While history offers innumerable instances in which the imperialist impulse of commercial film distribution and exhibition has used the developing world as grist for its mill—for instance, the nascent Technicolor process proved both its technological and commercial viability through such “exotic” documentary films as Cairo, City Of Contrast (1938)—one could also cite a number of instances in which film programs have been effective tools in understanding and responding to revolution. In instances such as Maurice Lemaitre’s abstruse screening events under the banner of Lettrism, to Robert Flaherty’s pioneering documentary film forum, one can see how film programming forms a contemporaneous archaeology of the reality of global events. Navigating recent examples, one finds an incipient catalogue of programs that examine Egypt’s current landscape. In shifting scales, each film explores different planes and perspectives of an intangible political reality. Our pursuit here will be the juxtaposition of two recently screened film programs focused on Egypt: French filmmaker Emmanuelle Demoris’ Mafrouza cycle, and Egypt Rising: Portents of Revolution in Recent Egyptian Cinema, curated by Rasha Salti.
Three weeks after the initial events of the Arab Spring, film professor, writer and programmer Gabe Klinger traveled to Egypt with Emmanuelle Demoris to present Demoris’ twelve-hour, five-part documentary film series collectively named the Mafrouza cycle (2007-10), after the eponymous Alexandrian neighbourhood in which the films are set. Demoris first encountered Mafrouza and its residents ten years ago, after accepting an invitation from a group of French archaeologists to explore the ruins of the necropolis of Alexandria. After Demoris met the people who had built their homes in the ruins, the archaeological impulse became secondary as she spent four years living with them and chronicling their daily lives with a low-grade digital camera—a cinematic tool intimately connected to the democratization of image-making.
While there is no direct connection, French distribution was secured for Mafrouza immediately after the events of the Arab Spring, which also facilitated Demoris and Klinger’s trip to Egypt to present the films at the American University in Cairo and the French Institute in Alexandria. The latter is only a stone’s throw from the improvised neighbourhood itself, or rather what is left of it; since Demoris finished filming, all of Mafrouza’s residents have been displaced by the city to make way for a real-estate development. The presence of a number of Mafrouza residents at screenings of the films no doubt helped contribute to the exciting, sometimes impassioned discussions that Klinger and Demoris moderated afterwards. While it would be both glib and slighting of the films’ aesthetic condour to view them solely in hindsight of the Arab Spring, the durational intensity of Mafrouza over its ruminative, yet gripping twelve hours helps reveal not only the textures but the density of daily life, that which can give weight to such ecstatic, all-too-infrequent bursts of liberation as Egypt witnessed in February.
For international film programmer Rasha Salti—who presented the six-film program called Egypt Rising: Portents of Revolution in Recent Egyptian Cinema at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox in June 2011 as part of the Luminato Festival—a contrasting conflation of fiction and non-fiction is embodied in a surreptitious shift in Egypt’s independent filmmaking. In these films, simple, archetypal stories told by Egypt’s first generation of independent filmmakers provide an alternative historiographical context in which to understand the successive revolutionary events.
Prior to the Arab Spring, filming was not allowed?
Before Mubarak fell, it was illegal for Egyptians to film in the streets. All of a sudden, there are no rules and it’s impossible to put people in jail for filming because everyone’s doing it. I think we’re going to see some very prominent examples of that in the coming years. But, I think there is still a long way to go. There needs to be a screening culture where young people can see things, and a critical culture and aesthetic rigour that are currently lacking. That’s why it’s so crucial to show Mafrouza in this context.
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Rasha Salti is currently the Toronto International Film Festival’s programmer for African and Middle Eastern Cinema. Salti is an independent film and visual arts curator and writer. In 2011, she was one of co-curators of the 10th edition of the Sharjah Biennial for the Arts, with Suzanne Cotter and Haig Aivazian. Salti writes about artistic practice in the Arab world, film, and general social and political commentary, in Arabic and English. Her articles and essays have been published in The Jerusalem Quarterly Report (Palestine), Naqd (Algeria), MERIP (USA), The London Review of Books (UK), Afterall (US) and Third Text (UK).
Gabe Klinger, a Chicago-based teacher, writer and film programmer, was born in São Paulo, Brazil. He is currently an assistant professor in fine arts at National-Louis University. Klinger co-founded and is head programmer of Chicago Cinema Forum, a non-profit devoted to talking about and disseminating important and challenging works in film history. He has served on juries at the Buenos Aires Festival of Independent Cinema (Argentina), the Viennale (Austria), and the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival (Brazil), among others. As a journalist and critic, Klinger has written for over twenty journals, regularly attends film festivals all over the world, and is a member of the International Federation of Film Critics.
Image Credit: Hesham Issawi, Cairo Exit, 2010 (digital still). Digital presentation, 100 min. Egypt/United Arab Emirates. Image courtesy of TIFF Egypt Rising Film Program and Hesham Issawi.