Debating Documentaries in Egypt

Egyptians are debating the value and quality of video documentary as part of the Egyptian Revolution. A recent article from Egypt’s English-language news site AhramOnline discusses the spate of documentaries that have been produced, both during and after the uprising in Tahrir square that captivated the world — in part through the deft use of online media. The article touches on a number of issues, including questions of industry and international pressure, but my interest was sparked by it’s comments on the quality and artistic merit of some of these documentaries. For me, this debate touches on one of the core tensions at the intersection of art and organizing.

With video technology so close at hand, often in the form of mobile phones, the Egyptian revolution was televised — or at least YouTubed. Almost immediately, amateur and professional documentarians began to assemble footage into movies that could tell the story of the revolution and its aftermath. During the revolution, a cinema was constructed right in the middle of the Tahrir square, showing raw footage of the revolution to those protesting. Once the initial revolt was over, both local and international film festivals have sprung up to feature documentaries of the revolution. So documentary footage, and documentaries, have been important parts of the uprising — bringing people together, sparking dialogue, spreading the word about the revolution, and seeking to shape the story of the revolution rather than leaving it to television’s talking heads.

For example, this is a video posted online seven months ago by visual artist and activist Jasmina Metwaly, The Downfall of Mubarak رحيل مبارك

But some filmmakers and critics are apparently raising questions about the quality of these documentaries. No one argues against the value of video itself. The images captured by cameras and mobile phones throughout the revolution brought the uprising right to the world’s doorstep. As one artist says in the article, “We live in the age of technology and you have to prove everything with a document. Without that the revolution would have not succeeded.”

But a film critic in the article worries that people do not have the distance from the events that they need to create “art.” This is combined with the fact that many of these films are being edited quickly; as one filmmaker said specifically about documentaries being made for TV, “The culture of making a film in 5 days, editing it in a couple, and selling it to TV channels still exists. There are no masterpieces out there.”

It may be easy to dismiss some of these concerns as artistic elitism. Rough, quickly crafted documentaries fresh from the ongoing struggles perhaps have their own kind of aesthetic even more appropriate to fast changing times. The video above, for instance, captures a sense of excitement, of power, and of collective vision. But it does not reach the kind of deep understanding and powerful narrative that the best documentaries offer — that is likely not the artist’s goal.

As someone passionately committed to cultural organizing, I’m the last person to argue that the goals of art and activism are opposed. The reason this work is so powerful is because the goals of organizing and political art can compliment each other so well. But we still need to be aware of where the tensions lie, particularly because the moments when artistic quality is sacrificed for political expediency are, in my experience, the moments where artists become skeptical. They are often frustrated by a sense that art is used and abused as a tool for purely political ends, without a real appreciation for its intrinsic power.

The tension in the Egyptian documentaries, I think, revolves around time. Quality film-making — film-making that has the potential to change the way people see the world — usually takes a lot of time. This is not just an aesthetic point: as cultural organizers, higher quality can mean more effective.

Normally this is not a problem. If a cultural organizing group takes on an issue that is ongoing and constant — say, creating documentaries about the corruption of a regime in power — they have some freedom to take the time they need to craft their message, medium, and story just right. But what about in times of fast-moving change? Decisions are made quickly, situations are shifting under our feet. Sure, in a year or two fabulous documentaries will be made culling truths from the past. But what is the cultural organizer’s role right in the middle of the action?

I would disagree with those in the article who say that, in the midst of radical change,  we are not yet ready to create art about it. But at the same time, we may need to adjust our goals and methods. Maybe certain kinds of art cannot be made quickly. Which are more feasible and effective in such a time frame, and with the tools at hand? If a documentary is made in the traditional way, but just faster, you may very well end up with a mediocre documentary. But what if we imagine a new type of documentary that actually draws strength from its roughness and unplanned feel? Perhaps in-the-moment documentaries need to allow more room for audience interpretation, because the film-maker herself has had so much less time to do so. Perhaps it is a matter of juxtaposing the chaos and confusion rather than trying to tie it into a bow — to avoid what one film-maker described regarding TV documentaries: “such documentaries package the revolution as something finished and create a nostalgic memory for the days of the uprising.”

I’ve more questions than answers, but I will leave you with a more recent video by Jasmina Metwaly, this one perhaps showing how the has changed as the revolution has moved into a new stage.

Remarks on Medan