Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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Review: ½ Revolution

Karim El-Hakim and Omar Shargawi's new documentary tells the story of Tahrir Square.
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A screen-shot from ½ Revolution.

In a downtown Cairo apartment, on a small grainy television screen, there is a screenshot of the crowds in Tahrir Square. Next to it, a shot of a rather smaller group of people chanting for Hosni Mubarak, which the state-run media would have the people believe, is simply a close-up of the larger crowd. Yet a brief walk away, reality beckons – Tahrir is filled with crowds demanding an end to Mubarak's regime. There is also the army, the police, tear gas, US-made bullets and blood.

A snapshot of Egypt in 2011, this is but one scene from the documentary ½ Revolution which charts the experiences and concerns of its half-Egyptian directors Karim El-Hakim and Omar Shargawi, their families and friends during the tumultuous period. The documentary features scenes in homes and the streets filmed on hand-held cameras up to seven days before Mubarak resigned. The film thus shows half the revolution. But as El Hakim and Shargawi make clear, this symbolically also reflects the fact that the revolution today remains an unfinished story. 

Military positions

What the documentary best provides is an honest look at life at the time of the revolution, free from special effects. At the same time, however, many of the concerns it raises are still pertinent today. 18 months after Mubarak stepped down, for example, the military remains dominant. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) granted itself sweeping powers last month, granting itself legislative powers and a greater role in the constitution-building process. 

Speaking at the Barbican Centre for the London premiere of ½ Revolution, El-Hakim condemned the stance of the military. He reasoned that it was wrong to have people who have been “taught how to kill, running civil society”, especially when there are no adequate ways for the public to hold them accountable. Some claim that one authoritarian regime has simply replaced another. However, the military has long had a significant degree of autonomy and authority in Egypt. The Egyptian army is said to control anywhere between 15-40 % of the economy and, historically, has always had strong influence on civil society. In light of their historical role in the country, their stranglehold now should not be surprising.

The military is ever present in ½ Revolution. As the first tanks enter the square, some Cairenes hope the military will not hurt their own “mothers and sisters”. It is not long, however, before El-Hakim sees tanks drive over about five people. 

The emotions of the revolution

While there are symbolic parallels to be drawn with contemporary events in Egypt, the main power of ½ Revolution lies in its ability to convey the emotional experience of the 2011 uprising. The directors clearly have strong opinions on the progress of democracy and upheaval in Egypt today, but the film primarily aims, in El-Hakim’s words, to “make the revolution, which is this huge monster, more accessible”. 

In the documentary then, we hear voices decrying unemployment and poverty, and expressing the grievances which lay behind calls for Mubarak to step down. Viewers are immersed in the revolutionary experience: the fearful telephone conversations, the confusion, the blood-covered ground with the word Masr (Egypt) scrawled in it and the tissues soaked in vinegar to ward off tear gas.

The film also forces the audience to question assumptions and preconceptions about the process of change in Egypt. The revolution is often portrayed in a rather triumphant manner – according to straightforward accounts, the people protested, spurred on by social media, and in 18 days forced the president to resign. The documentary restores an understanding of the complex truth and less than glamorous events that took place during the revolution – in those 18 days, people were also buying up supplies, leaving the country and locking themselves in their flats, cautiously peering out to see the violence below.

The role of social media during January and February of 2011 has also often been exaggerated. ½ Revolution does reveal a tech-savvy population, fully aware of what was going on across Cairo through Facebook or Twitter. El-Hakim’s flat only had access to the state-run television channels promulgating propaganda about the demonstrations. Even though the government shut down the internet briefly, surveys from 2010 suggest that only 27% of the population were classed as internet users. ½ Revolution shows that it was instead word of mouth that proved to be the most effective revolutionary tool.

Egypt's transition has been far more extensively and internationally covered than any revolutions of the past – that does not necessarily mean, however, that the story of the uprising has been told more fully than any previously. Shargawi and El-Hakim's film is important in that it shows an event without romanticising it or retrospectively attaching a grand narrative to it. 

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