Egyptian revolution: Download at 50 percent
By Harry van Versendaal
THESSALONIKI -- It’s night and small group of friends are sitting inside a living room. The shades are closed but the lights are off. Outside, a group of men wielding knives and clubs are coming down the street shouting slogans. “It's the f***ing thugs,” a voice says as a small HD camera rolls. It's the first few days of Egypt's revolution in January 2011, and nobody really has a clear idea of what is going on.
Filmmakers Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American, and Omar Shargawi, a Dane, got a chance to film the dream of a lifetime as the Egyptian capital was swept by protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with consumer HD and phone cameras, the two activist friends shift the focus back and forth between the violence in and around Tahrir Square and the heated conversations inside the downtown apartment, covering 11 days of the revolution.
Shot at a high-speed pace, with shaky footage (that may put off some older viewers) and claustrophobic close-up shots and augmented with a dramatic score, the end result is a diary-like, action-packed verite personal documentary that will keep you on the end of your seat. With no choice due to the escalating violence, the filmmakers flee the country together with El Hakim's wife and child, leaving both the revolution and the project unfinished. “Half Revolution,” which draws on some 120 hours of footage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.
El Hakim, a tall man with unruly curls and sporting a leather jacket, was in Thessaloniki for the promotion of the film, which was screened at the coastal city's documentary festival this week. Born in Palo Alto, California, he moved between the United States and Egypt for years, until ultimately settling in Cairo a decade ago, largely prompted by the anti-Arab backlash after 9/11. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about those “11 life-changing days” and shared his thoughts about the prospects of this “half revolution.”
What were you doing when the whole thing started?
We were working on a feature film directed by Omar, set in Cairo and loosely based on the Book of Job. It's about an Egyptian-Danish man who comes back to Cairo and the second he sets foot in the country his whole life is turned upside down. The man blames God for his troubles, he turns his back on him and sees what living without God means. You'll definitely hear about it soon.
Are you religious?
Not particularly. I actually come from a very Sufi background, but strict religion is not something I believe in. I think everybody has their own religion in a sense.
When did you consciously decide to go beyond coverage of events and make yourselves the subjects of the movie?
We started by trying to capture things happening on the street. We were shooting stuff in the street and then shooting stuff at home, mostly conversations, because there was nothing else to do. Then on January 25 we got arrested at around 1.30 in the morning in Tahrir Square as the police really brutally attacked the people; a lot of people were shot and a lot of people died that night. We got beaten up by a hundred guys, thrown in a box, we were separated, sort of reunited in the box, then taken to a prison. We were released at around 4 a.m. because we played dumb -- we pretended we were foreign tourists and they let us go. That traumatic experience made us realize that even though there was stuff happening around us, there was also stuff happening to us and we wanted to capture that. And we realized the best way to tell the story was through the frame of reference of characters and that we were, in fact, the characters. So the film became a kind of autobiographical account of what we were going through. We didn’t use any historical clips, or YouTube clips. It’s not the history of the revolution. It’s not a history lesson.
You must have tons of material.
Yes, we have around 120 hours of material. We had three to four cameras going and everybody was filming as much as they could.
What did you shoot with?
Just small consumer HD cameras. I even shot with an iPhone.
Did you have any of your material confiscated?
Actually, the night we were arrested, Omar tried to film inside the police truck and a policeman took the chip out of his phone. So we did lose some important material that night, but we were were able to patch up the storytelling. In the end, we were lucky to get out with all the footage. [At the airport] I had to hide some of the stuff in my son's diapers. We were very scared about getting caught, because we heard of other journalists getting caught. I even cut my hair, really short and boring, wore really boring clothes, pretending to be an English teacher. Having a baby of course helped.
Where did you fly to?
We went to Paris, where my uncle and cousins live. We stayed there for three months until the dust settled and then went back to Cairo.
Were you or anyone else hurt during the protests?
I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet; luckily it missed my eye by about half an inch. And on the night we were arrested, I was beaten up pretty badly. Otherwise I was pretty lucky. We missed some bullets that flew very close to us.
Where exactly do you live in Cairo?
I live right downtown, two blocks from Talaat Harb Square and four blocks from Tahrir.
What was the situation like in other neighborhoods? At some point your wife says she's off to [the more affluent residential district of] Zamalek to get some milk for the baby.
Zamalek is like an island in the middle of the Nile. It is more upscale and was actually a safer zone to be in. There were not many protests happening in Zamalek. Life did go on in certain parts of the city. Downtown was really the battlefield.
Did you use Twitter or any other social media?
I actually started using Twitter once they turned the Internet back on, but I did not have a smartphone. Some of my friends used [BlackBerry's encrypted messenger service] PBM to communicate and to mobilize and to warn each other where not to go to avoid the police. But when they cut the Internet everybody went out on the street to find out what was happening. And then, when they turned it back on, the crowd thinned as a lot of people left to upload their clips. It's ironic. [The authorities] used it as a weapon to manipulate the crowds, so relying on that kind of stuff was useful but it cannot ever replace actually being there.
We don't see any journalists from the mainstream media in your film.
They were not really part of our reality. I didn’t see many journalists in the street, most of the journalists were sitting at five-star hotels shooting from their balconies. We did try to get in touch with people to upload these clips but we couldn’t find them, they were too busy or got arrested.
Is it more dangerous for you now that you've made the movie?
I guess I'm waiting for that knock on the door. But it hasn't happened yet. And I think part of the reason why it hasn't happened is that in Egypt they are really not concerned with what is shown outside of the country. They are more concerned about what is shown inside the country. So as it’s shown in Cairo for the premiere there will probably be reactions to it.
Where do you see things going from here? Do you see a fresh showdown with the army?
There are daily showdowns with the army now. Some are violent, some are not, but I think ultimately it is sort of the beginning of the end of their completely privileged place. I think that they will have to compromise with the people and work with the Brotherhood. To what extent, we will have to see. Many people believe the Brotherhood have made a deal with the army allowing them to take power on the condition that the army is not reformed -- which is an empty wish. Because things are not going to go back to the way they were. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has always been an illegal party, so in a sense what the revolution has done is take them out of the shadows, put them into the light and legalize them; and there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. They have a lot of cleaning up to do. All these institutions that are rotten to the core, they have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if they don't do anything, they will feel it in the polls. This pressure is not going to go away. Something has woken up in people and it's like the veil has been lifted from the eyes of the regular Egyptian. He has realized he has been living under a military dictatorship for 60 years and this was something they did not even really understand. Something has to change, hopefully for the better.
Were you surprised at it all?
I think the army really was trying to fend off a real revolution. It's clear to me now in retrospect that on day three of the uprising, when the army went into town and basically styled themselves as the saviors of the revolution, that they were in fact trying to position themselves in a positive light by basically getting rid of Mubarak. It's really difficult to invest in the military. In a sense we can only hope for the best and hope that the Brotherhood and the army will start to have some friction. They are certainly not the best of friends. But they have a common enemy, which is revolution, which is democracy. Neither of these groups is democratic, neither of these groups is liberal. They are both very conservative so at the moment we are seeing this counter-revolution being waged against the liberals and the youth parties and the workers’ parties to try to discredit the revolution and take people out of the game. It's a real tense and fragile moment, but what is clear is that the military is up to a lot of dirty tricks. They are playing mind games, trying to confuse people. You need to influence the minds of the so-called couch party, the silent majority who only get news from state TV and terrestrial television, who don't watch Al Jazeera, don't have Internet, and only read government papers. And I think our film does the same on the international stage. I've been trying to spread the word through this film that the revolution is not over. A lot of people, especially in America and Europe, think, “Hey, the dictator is gone, the revolution is over, you must be so happy, everything is cool.” But it's not. We're only halfway done, maybe even less than halfway done.
You can watch the movie trailer here.