One of the more photogenic moments in 2011’s popular uprising against the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak witnessed groups of men, some armed with swords and such, ride horses and camels into the midst of the Tahrir Square protestors. Television broadcast scenes of terrified pro-democracy demonstrators fleeing.
Others fought back, pulling the men from their mounts and beating them. It seemed a defining gesture of counter-revolutionary sentiment.
For those who regard the news media with some skepticism, it would be no surprise to learn that such black and white representations of Egypt’s revolution are simplistic.
“Back to the Square: Five Stories from the Egyptian Revolution,” the new documentary by Canadian filmmaker Peter Lom seeks to bring nuance to last year’s events. Lom specifically sought out Egyptians who, for various reasons, did not emerge winners from this political ferment.
One story is that of a young man, who lives with his family near the Giza pyramids. There they used to subsist by offering horseback rides to passing tourists. That trade dried up after the uprising and these boys were among the group of mounted men who rode into Tahrir Square that fateful day.
The young man says that he and his family were not paid to attack anti-Mubarak demonstrators. He was, however, pulled from his horse and badly beaten by men in the square – claims that do appear to be confirmed by some footage of that day.
Though the film doesn’t identify who was responsible for beating the boys – and as the young men recount the way they were treated – it seems obvious that the lived experiences of Egyptians in 2011 can’t accurately be characterized as simply pro-regime/anti-regime.
The film also includes the testimony of a man who says he was wrongly imprisoned before the uprising, and was released after the Tahrir protests began and told to harass protesters.
He says when he refused, the police beat him and threw acid on him – pulling up his shirt to reveal extensive scarring on his torso.
Lom also provides a – perhaps inadvertent – comic interlude with Taha Fouda, who describes himself as the Egyptian police’s chief inspector for a district in Cairo.
To demonstrate that police behavior is strong but lawful, Fouda calls into his office a fellow accused of killing a man to whom he had pimped-out his wife. Fouda tells the man to confirm that he’s not being badly treated while awaiting trial. He does.
“We want every citizen to know how our system works,” Fouda says.
“The Interior Ministry is here to protect citizen’s rights and to communicate with each citizen effectively and
seriously, to give back a feeling of security to every Egyptian citizen. Thank you,” Fouda concludes. “Finish.”
“Back to the Square” had its world premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam this week.
Though it isn’t a masterpiece of documentary cinema, it is interesting for the stories it tells, experiences that have not so far emerged from media reports and the handful of documentaries that have been produced, many by Egyptian filmmakers.
This is Lom’s fifth documentary. Previous works have been about Iran’s populist President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in 2009, a short film set in Bagram and another about the Uighur people, China’s Muslim minority, both from 2007.
A former Budapest university politics professor, Lom says serendipity brought him to making documentaries about the Muslim world. This project began life as a documentary about former presidential contender Mohamed ElBaredei, who Lom followed to Egypt when the revolution began. Later, he decided to focus on common folks.
“I wasn’t very impressed with the initial coverage of the revolution in the international media,” Lom recalls. “In Egypt you realize it’s not just about the celebrities that were made by CNN ... It took four or five months to realize that the film should be about basic injustice and the cruelty of the state towards ordinary people ... The [Mubarak regime] played on the poor, the weak and the illiterate. That’s why I chose those stories.”
Lom speaks no Arabic and says he had no network on the ground when he arrived in Egypt and so relied on local fixers for his stories.
“It took a couple of months to find a good assistant,” Lom recalls. “In the end I found two who were very committed to working with me. One of them found for me the story of Mohammad, the ex-thug. [My assistant’s father] is a doctor working in a hospital that Mohammad broke into one day. Instead of having him arrested, he gave him a job parking cars in the garage.”
One of the motifs of the film involves passers-by remarking critically about Lom and his crew filming.
He says he chose to include these scenes because they were both representative and thematically pertinent.
“I looked for scenes that I liked,” he says. “It’s difficult to film in Egypt and [these scenes] help to tell the story too. It’s a historical residue of this dictatorship to make people feel suspicious of people with cameras. The new military government will arrests people and call them spies. Then anyone with a camera has a problem.”
The absent star of “Back to the Square” is Michael Nabil, an Egyptian blogger who was arrested because of his commentary on the regime’s human rights violations, and who went on a hunger strike while in detention.
Nabil’s younger brother Mark joined Lom and his crew for the Rotterdam premiere of the film. Since the film was completed, he says, his brother ended the hunger strike, on Dec.31. He was released from prison on Jan. 24.
The Nabil family is from Egypt’s Coptic minority, but the blogger’s brother has said religion has nothing to do with this story.
“Michael was arrested before because he was against Egypt’s obligatory military service.” Nabil twice defied his draft notice, which got him arrested the first time.
“Michael was against the way the army was taking over the revolution,” Mark Nabil continues.
“He knew that nothing would change if the army took over.”
“All the videos Michael showed on the internet had already been shown by known television broadcasters. The army turned against Michael when they noticed he was exposing them to the people, that [the new regime is] the same government with a different face.”
Though his brother has completed a medical degree, Mark Nabil says he wants to enter politics. He says that this work is needed because the revolution hasn’t yet been accomplished.
“Nothing has really changed,” Nabil says. “Mubarak is not the president any more, but he’s still controlling the army, not from his castle but from his hospital. Many innocent people have died, but no one is speaking up for their rights. Nobody is being judged for what they did to the people during the revolution. Until today none of the reasons for the revolution has been fulfilled,” he concludes.
Power Cut runs until Feb. 2. The International Film Festival Rotterdam continues until Feb. 5.