IFFR's Power Cut Middle East strand gave a chance to filmmakers and others from the Arab world to air their views on the changes taking place in the Middle East, Ben Walters reports
Many of the effects of the popular uprisings that have spread throughout the Arab world over the past year are striking and unmissable, from the fall of Mubarak to the deaths of dozens of Egyptian football fans this week. But other effects are less obvious. “After 40 years of blockade and confinement, people have overcome this fear,” suggests Charlotte Bank, “and are discovering themselves, rediscovering their friends, developing new relationships. There is an awareness of public space as a space for discourse. That didn’t happen before.”
Bank, co-curator of the Visual Arts Festival Damascus, was one of several contributors to a group interview with filmmakers and other figures from the Arab world participating in IFFR’s Power Cut Middle East: Busy Making Revolution strand. Some of the participants spoke under condition of anonymity. A Syrian filmmaker spoke of the power of seeing an installation piece at Rotterdam which allowed them to hear for the first time the voice of an activist they had previously seen only as a photograph on walls.
“When you moved in public in Syria, you controlled yourself and tried not to be noticed,” Bank said. “Now, public space is being seen as a location for the articulation of ideas. It’s being done in an anonymous way: masses of protestors operate in the streets and there are several collectives using interesting new creative – even artistic – forms of protest. There has always been a political element in much artistic production in Syria, because it’s a way to articulate ideas it was not possible to speak about in any other way [but that could be addressed] through multilayered expressions, through the use of metaphors. But this artistic production could only be found in very specific locations. Now, you find creativity in the public space.
“The fountains of Damascus have been coloured red to commemorate martyrs on several occasions; this is done by an anonymous group of creative activists or artists. There are several instances of the use of a very well-known revolutionary song whose writer was killed in a very brutal way. This song is being played in different spaces around the city – in garbage bins or from buildings. There have been people driving around in cars distributing leaflets with revolutionary poems; balloon protests; so many different ways. It’s no longer a location that is controlled, supervised and under the very heavy control of the state. It is the people now who are retaking their city.”
There were mixed feelings from Egyptian residents about the country’s position a year after protestors massed at Tahrir Square. To artist and filmmaker Khaled Hafez, the deaths of more than 70 people following a football match on Wednesday was “an organized crime. Every three or four months there is a public gathering of some sort and something like that happens. Certain forces are improving their techniques – it’s the first time yesterday that 70 people are dead without a single bullet. To me, the Military Council is a name – the whole thing is much bigger than that.”
Hafez, 48, said that “it’s only the younger generation, who instigated this revolution, who are very much politically engaged. I was not trained or programmed that change would happen in my lifetime, certainly not by public protesting.” But Philip Rizk, born in Germany but raised in Egypt, where he still lives, disagreed. “You had people from across generations and across classes – there were men and women who aged 40, 50, 60 on the streets.” For him, the past year has seen an expansion of political consciousness, illustrated by the focus of last month’s protests compared to those of a year earlier. “This time, protestors were very clearly targeting the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, whereas last year one of the weaknesses was that they were focused on one person (Mubarak). As far as the system goes, nothing has changed and things have gotten worse.”
The generational issue is clearly of widespread interest. “Something beautiful that I’ve noticed during the toppling of these dictators is the change in my mum,” said one young filmmaker of Iraqi descent based in Europe. “She’s in London, away from all of this, 62 years old. From the start to now she’s followed every single moment and, although she’s so sad and she cries, and so many people are dying, she sees something that she never imagined she would see … This idea that we now are free – we can go to the bread shop and talk about the government and say how bad they are – it’s a new idea [and] people might not really know which direction it’s going.”
The effects of actions on the streets of Cairo, Lebanon and Damascus create ripples that travel more widely than might first be apparent, with consequences no one can yet understand. “There’s a revolution happening all over the world, in people’s houses.”
More about Power Cut Middle East here.