Profile: Tahrir Cinema

Tahrir Cinema, Tahrir Square, Egypt

The story of the Egyptian revolution is being written collectively, and cinematically, by the Egyptian people. During the sit-in in Tahrir Square that started on July 8, 2011 — a protest against the slow pace of government reforms under military leadership — a screen made of wooden planks was erected to display videos of the revolution. This open-air movie theater, dubbed Tahrir Cinema, showed everything from finished documentaries to raw footage. And taking a page from the web 2.0 playbook, it was a collectively curated endeavor; anyone with video could put it up on the big screen.

It is no longer surprising that important events are immediately recorded and disseminated, due to the omnipresence of cell phone cameras and social media. But the vision behind Tahrir Cinema and its creator, the activist arts collective Mosireen, takes the potential of these technologies to new levels. Many in the media and the blogosphere have debated whether or not facebook, twitter, and other new technologies should be credited with facilitating the revolutions in the Middle East, or whether they are taking attention away from the importance of good, old-fashioned, face-to-face organizing. Mosireen’s work hints at a path through the middle of this debate, one that thrives off the intersection between the ethereal and the physical, between media and human interaction.

A powerful example of this was described in an article at Al-Masry Al-Youn:

The screenings are conversations, during which commentary is welcome. When a clip from the morning of 10 April showed young men displaying the bullet casings they found on the ground after the military cleared the square the night before, one spectator was prompted to stand up and tell his parallel story. Displaying his own bullet casings, he took the microphone and delivered a speech, which included a particularly cutting metaphor for the project’s theme: the revolution is not over.

In this moment, we see a fascinating conglomeration of new and old organizing techniques. Videos taken on digital cameras and phones, many having been shared on YouTube, are projected onto a makeshift screen in the middle of a sit-in, creating a very real, physical space of community. People come accidentally on their way through the city, and after hearing the call on twitter and facebook. Much like on YouTube, people bring their own videos to be shown, but this time by walking into the media tent to hand it over. And footage on the screen leads to in-the-moment oral storytelling.

Khalid Abdalla, activist, actor and co-founder of Tahrir Cinema, explains the effects of bringing Tahrir cinema to life: “The meaning of seeing the footage is not just a matter of seeing stuff that’s powerful it’s about seeing yourself in it. It’s about seeing what’s changed in your country and what has changed in your identity, that relationship is immensely strong. It’s about encouraging a continued fight and bringing hope from how far we’ve come.”

The artists who created Tahrir cinema are very aware that part of the revolutionary fight take place in the realm of storytelling. As one article put it, “More than a simple morale booster, [Tahrir Cinema] is an opportunity for the people in Tahrir to be a part of how their own story is told. The screening program shows how archiving has become an active agent in the movement for change.”

Tahrir Cinema was taken down when the sit-in was cleared out by the military government. But the vision was larger than this one location — Mosireen has been compiling an archive of the revolution for the future. As Khalid explains, “the archive we’ve built is not ours, it’s the Egyptian peoples; it was filmed by the Egyptian people, it’s their story and it’s our story but a lot of people haven’t seen it. This country is going to be unpacking what happened here for generations and you never know what’s important and what isn’t. There are two things happening- there’s a duty to the present and a duty to the future and we’re trying to fulfil both.”

It is hard for me to tell what is going on with Mosireen these days, but based on the twitter accounts of some of the founders, (I found them here) they are still finding ways to be active as the revolution goes into its next stages. And by now all kinds of documentaries and film festivals are sprouting up. But to me, the days of the Tahrir Cinema are perhaps the most intriguing. Check out this video for some live footage of Tahrir Cinema.

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