In the five years since the start of the so-called “Arab Spring,” as poverty, repression, and extremism have continued to impact daily life throughout the Middle East and North Africa, a civil revolution has quietly flourished, one that is complex, creative and marked by discontent. There is, of course, no simple way of describing, or even of dating recent revolutionary movements in the region. When did they begin, and is it remotely accurate to suggest that they have “succeeded” when, in many instances, the status quo remains seemingly undisturbed? Western media outlets may appear to crave simplistic accounts of revolution in the global South, imposing grand narratives as they cover major (typically violent) events, and implicitly suggesting the cessation of revolution by bringing reporters back from a seemingly stabilizing field and discouraging further coverage.
That journalistic accounts of the Arab Spring are now difficult to come by, at least compared with the glut of such accounts in 2011, is one reason westerners may suspect that Arab League countries are now characterized by an emphatically “post-revolutionary” moment – an experience of relative calm. Another, thornier reason may have something to do with the sheer difficulty of defining “revolution” in the first place, particularly in those parts of the world where multiple modes of censorship reign. Who, ultimately, can speak with authority on recent events in Egypt, and, more importantly, how?
Egyptian filmmakers are, at present, in a particularly complicated position, whether they remain in Egypt or live abroad. With European festivals and funding sources still clamoring for anything that smacks of an “authentic” representation of the Arab Spring, it is almost axiomatic that, by including the word “revolution” in a film’s title or description, Egyptian filmmakers will receive attention, financing and even major awards for their efforts, whatever their practical and ideological relationships to revolutionary action. Emerging from this exoticizing interest in the “Arab Spring” are, inevitably, certain prescriptions for filmmaking – dominant ideas about what, exactly, a documentary on the subject must “be” or “do.”
Jehane Noujaim’s rapturously received The Square (2013), which enjoys the imprimatur of both Netflix (its distributor) and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (which nominated it for the Best Documentary Oscar), is emblematic of the type of film that embraces a charismatic cast of characters through which it frames, personalizes, and even seeks to “master” history. Indeed, The Square presents its protagonists not just as characters in a drama but as individuals with arcs – psychologized trajectories that help the film to narrate the revolution as a living organism with a spectacular birth, awkward adolescence and troubled adulthood. Thus, when the glamorous Ahmed Hassan, having taken a long, luxurious drag on his cigarette, turns to the camera and says, “Let me tell you how this whole story began,” the confident sweep of his declaration references both his intimate self-knowledge and his expansive comprehension of Egyptian revolutionary events. The viewer is expected to trust Hassan’s account of these events as a reflection not simply of his own lived experiences but also of a certain command of history – of how, precisely, “this whole story began.”
Shadowed by the global critical success of The Square are numerous documentaries that take a dramatically different approach, many of them by refusing mention of the “Arab Spring” and instead centralizing the struggle to produce creative works during altogether confusing and contradictory revolutionary times.
“It will hit you without warning, and simply carry you away.” sings Gil Scott-Heron in “Third World Revolution.” For filmmaker and scholar Alisa Lebow, such carrying away might well describe the experiences of the participants in her project Filming Revolution, many of whom claim to have moved past the point at which they could conceivably offer any easy answers or linear narratives to explain revolutionary movements, whether to outsiders or to themselves.
Described as “a meta-documentary about filmmaking in Egypt since the revolution,” Lebow’s project has culminated in a website that brings together filmed interviews with 30 Egyptian filmmakers, artists, activists, and archivists, along with examples of key creative works. An illustration of what Lebow calls “interactive documentary,” the website allows users to make their own connections among its thematically organized components, inscribing idiosyncratic research pathways either anonymously or by logging on via Twitter. The site thus positions visitors not as passive recipients of the sort of knowledge that in conventional documentary fashion The Square seeks to construct and impart, but as active agents in an ongoing struggle to scrutinize the innumerable, unheralded intersections between art and activism in Egypt.
Filming Revolution began as a curated set of films for the Istanbul Film Festival, at a time when Lebow was hoping to bring together any audiovisual works remotely related to the term “Arab Spring.” She was also struggling to contextualize Egyptian revolutionary films in relation to earlier examples of revolutionary documentary and documentary-style fiction, from Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1967) to Patricio Guzmán’s three-part The Battle of Chile (1975, 1976, 1979). Eventually opting to move beyond the practical and ideological limitations of both the film-festival circuit and the scholarly monograph, Lebow traveled to Egypt in December 2013 and began conducting interviews there. Arriving just four months after the Rabaa massacre, Lebow encountered what she called “revolutionary fatigue” – a distinctive feeling of lethargy occasioned, in part, by Egypt’s recent state of emergency and associated curfew.
Many of Lebow’s interviewees, selected because they had participated as Egyptians in various revolutionary actions, claimed to be adamantly opposed to the notion that a film could adequately capture, let alone communicate, the fervor of revolution. In interviews accessible on Lebow’s website, they eloquently convey their aversion to tendentious filmmaking strategies – those that disingenuously present revolution as narratable, generating documentaries that are taken to be authoritative examples of historiography, rather than works that question received knowledge, including about documentary itself. In its rhizomatic dimensions, Filming Revolution is an endlessly stimulating index of Egyptian creative practices, and a profound challenge to anyone willing to offer a tidy description of what mainstream journalists continue to call “the Arab Spring.”