Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Capturing Our Changing Realities

December 5th

Ten mangled neon strip lights hang from the ceiling, framing two fans, stilled and blackened by years of cigarette smoke. At the front of the room, behind the judges’ bench, a triumvirate of tattered, empty leather armchairs. Six overweight policemen sit behind me. To my right, the length of the room is taken up with a cage; a cage that has been filling up with men in blue jumpsuits since I arrived an hour ago. We are at an appeal hearing for my cousin, Alaa Abd El Fattah, court-martialed and imprisoned by Egypt's new military rulers for refusing to accept their legitimacy. He has been in jail for thirty six days now.

Last week I was choking, suffocating in endless tear gas as we battled the Egyptian police. I was carrying bleeding bodies to field hospitals. I was running between filming burning buildings, uploading videos to YouTube and constant interviews with foreign news agencies.

Ten days ago I was trapped in a doorway in Bab el Louk; soldiers had taken control of the embattled streets. With their shotguns, they slowly approached the doorway where we were hiding, metre by metre. I didn’t know how many; I could only hear the clicks of the reload as they got closer. And closer. We waited for them to turn the corner, to fire. 

I was convinced I was filming my final moments of life. 

Three guns came round the corner and the girl I was with took a decision - she raised her head and voice from behind my body, loudly, clearly - there's a girl here, there's a girl here, there's a girl here, let us out, please, let us out, let us out. Her quick thinking kept us alive.

How could I go home to a production budget? To casting?

I am constantly on the verge of tears.

How can film-makers, whose craft is so slow, so expensive, so made with its eye on the future, operate through these revolutionary nights?

How, when the days used to be stretched long by defeat, did anyone ever begin such labours before them?

Where once we had time now we have energy.

Where once we were few now we are many.

Everyone now is a film-maker. Our revolutions must be among the most recorded events of all time. The gap between the classical, expensive production process and the disposability of daily life is being ever more tightly bridged. Every mobile phone now has the power to challenge, to become the narrative. This disruptive decentralisation of the news, the occasional eruption of civilian participation, has happened many times before. The most famous is the Zapruder film, without which there would be very little fuel for debate about the manner of JFK's death. But now it is not the occasional blip, it is civilians and civil institutions that, time and again, are capturing the moments that are shaping the narrative. They are there for that fleeting moment of sadism that lays bare the ungraspable violence of years of state systems in an instant.

The tortured, lifeless bodies of Khalid Said and Hamza al Khatib; the young Cairene who stood up and stopped a water cannon; the Alexandrian killed as he opened his jacket to reveal his weaponless body; Neda Agha Soltan's dying moments; Gaddafi's capture. The news crews are not there. The people making the news are.

Jean Charles De Menezes. Sean Bell. Marc Duggan. The unrecorded. How the change in the world could burn brighter.


December 6th

I am home from the hospital where Manal, Alaa's wife, has given birth to the newest member of our family. His father, five miles away, in the same jail that houses the Mubarak sons, has not yet seen him.

I film a little then start to cut a youtube video. Footage from yesterday at the court, Alaa handcuffed to a policeman, standing with us for five minutes before being taken back to the police truck. Cuts to today at the hospital, the new baby being stroked and adored by his aunts, his mother. I doubt it will get to 5,000 views but it feels important, necessary.

We talk about whether there's any building outside the prison that Alaa can see, whether we can project a home movie onto it.

The question of how traditional film-makers fit into this new video landscape will be what defines the future of Arab cinema and beyond. How can the new mobile-phone pixel rate of reality be worked into the 'cinematic'? Can cinema shift from formulaic narrative and its fetish for fantasy towards something that actually represents life, does justice to life?

I am privileged to be working with a new collective of young film-makers in Cairo. Each dedicated to making their camera count. We call ourselves Mosireen, or We Are Determined. We work fluidly and interchangeably and with increasing efficiency and remarkably little ego.

Four days ago we finished a film on the martyrs of the Egyptian revolution. The film ends with a scrolling list of all the names of the dead. It is the first time they have been gathered and listed together. Three columns of names run across the screen for over two minutes. It is heartbreaking. We screened it on a makeshift cinema that we erect in Tahrir whenever we can.

And when the moment comes that gives us both energy and time, we can begin to think again about longer, more detailed films. Films that would traditionally be classed as cinema.

But since our reality is so changed, so must our films be. Cinema is more tied to reality than any other art form. Even Avatar needed a basis of reality to record. And yet the push from the mainstream has always been towards the unreal. Hollywood produces nothing except franchise and fantasy, growing more craven and repetitive each year. In the Arab world, industrial cinema has consisted of romantic comedies and schlocky thrillers for thirty years, each more removed from the urgencies of reality than the last. People, for now, are still paying for tickets, but we have to believe they are growing tired. Tired of being told that their reality is unimportant, that their partners are ugly, that their lives are uninteresting and their emotions pedestrian. Most of the world's population have never seen anything close to their reality represented on screen.

In America et al people are shifting to television. In the Arab world we have nowhere to go. The horrors of television production make a trip to the cinema feel like a night at the opera.

So we must take it as an opportunity. There is a moment now, a possibility, not just to reinvigorate our wretched film industries, but to revolutionise the way we construct moving-image narratives. And maybe to lead the world into the new.

The traditional division between cinema and documentary shows very clearly that cinema is built upon the re-creation of reality, rather than the capturing of it. It must then be true that the more reality you have to deal with, the harder it is to recreate it cinematically. The more crowd scenes and gunfights there are in your reality, the more time and resources you then need to "make the movie".

And the inverse, Americans and American society are probably the most divorced from reality, the most existent in a media-fed self-consciousness. Hollywood has harmonised the ideologies of romanticised militarisation, of the pointlessness of civic or personal engagement and the primacy of the individual's sensitivities and narratives into an endless stream of summer blockbusters and grosses equivalent to national debts. And in the constant framing of the boy-done-good, the worker-turned-hero, the wife-turned-renewed-object-of-sexual-desire an unattainable and basically undesirable society is constantly being re-packaged and sold back to an increasingly disenfranchised audience as being about them.

We are lucky then, that the media manipulation we’re fighting in Egypt is so heavy-handed, so divorced from reality, that the battle is over the sheer volume of the media message, rather than decades of emotional manipulation of a national idea of identity.

Our governments in the Arab world still rely heavily on the police, on physical violence as their primary method of population control. And in the violent cycle of these days, each beaten body, each blinded eye is a spark that might just pull a million people on to the streets. Every camera, every phone, every civilian now has the power to change the future.

Which means, of course, that those of us working in the movies have an opportunity. There is so much room for improvement, so little competition, so few institutional frameworks to dismantle, that we have everything to play for. As we are imagining a new, fairer, world, so we must imagine a new, fairer cinema; not one that would come at the expense of story or entertainment, but one that shuns the primacy of the individual. One that moves away from the shot-reverse-shot formulae that soak the imagination out of the frame. One that isn't afraid to try and capture reality rather than permanently worrying about financing the recreating of it.