Art and revolution
“We trust to each other’s strength. Or we did. And we were strong, undefeatable, once. Now, more than ever, we must find that strength, that trust. If you ever saw hope in this revolution, if you ever gave someone a cigarette on a march, if you ever went home with ideas burning brighter than the tear gas in your lungs then now is the time to find that trust again. Don’t ask me what comes next, because I honestly don’t know. Don’t ask me how we turn street power into politics, because I wish — more than anything — that I could tell you. The two, as they are, exist in different universes. What I know is that, right now, the street is all we have. And that if the street is strong, the police are not.” (O.R. Hamilton)
We publish a brief interview with Omar Robert Hamilton, filmmaker, writer and activist, one of the founders of the Egyptian collective Mosireen, with a view to the talk Disobedience Archive (The Square) organized for Wednesday, October 29th at MAXXI, Rome. Marco Scotini (founder, in 2005, of the Disobedience Archive) has invited the Egyptian filmmaker and activist – in Italy for the first time – to discuss about the political relationship between new media and practice in the fight.
As can be deduced from the interview, the activity of the Mosireen collective, which began in February 2011 after the fall of the government of President Hosni Mubarak, neither has been limited to the 18 days of occupation in Tarhir Square, nor has remained confined to the production of images of the revolution to be widespread throughout the net and the international media.
On the contrary, on the one side this group has took an active part in the organization of the riots since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime to the current Sisi’s one and, on the other, it has put together a series of processes that go beyond the mere sphere of counter-information and the documentary filmmaking, returning to the images their own value in use in the territories of the resistance themselves.
Several members of the collective have moved on from that practice which in the Anglo-Saxon area has been defined “citizen journalism”, developed from the ambivalent decentralization of information sources in the moment in which “every mobile now has the power to challenge and produce narratives”.
Their urgency was therefore to support and organize this production from the bottom during the various stages of the uprising, and to help in creating the conditions for self-representation and the construction of a collective narrative of the ongoing revolution at the very moment in which people were fighting the repression of the army and police and the essential need was that more and more people abandon their own houses to run down into the streets.
“Images looking for your pity only perpetuate the industrial cycle of the morbose media curiosity. […] We do not ask for your charity, we seek neither your prayers nor your thoughts, or your words, but your bodies. We do not ask for your martyrdom but for your bodies in the streets of your cities, your ideas and your energy, your resistance.”
It seems like you – as Mosireen- have put in place many different practices during the Egyptian insurrection (filming the ongoing revolution, publishing videos that challenge state media narratives, providing training, technical support, equipment, organise screenings, and events and hosting an extensive library of footage from the revolution), all aimed at building a platform for production/sharing/diffusion of images and narratives, for supporting and flanking the autonomous media when the Government, in addition to practicing censorship, started to impose his own reality. On one hand, an intervention on a global scale through the upload of images and videos on the net and, on the other, their diffusion and territorialisation in the places of struggle themselves, with Tahrir Cinema. Which kind of relationship or differences have you found between these two action fields? Could we perhaps say that the space of the network is not sufficient in itself for organizing the production of images from below?
We generally thought of the internet as a space that must be used to support and mobilize the real, physical world. Things existing online, information moving between networks is not an end in itself. Ultimately, our aim was to move people, to move them to act, to think, to believe and – we hoped – to change their own realities, and the internet was always just a tool to try and reach people through, to give a space for ideas to be bounced around, to say things that couldn’t be said in other places. And there is also a clear correlation between how reliant we are on the internet and how dominant and powerful the state is. The more powerful the state, the more difficult it is to do events in public spaces, or to speak on traditional media. So, now, for example – it is basically impossible as the state is the strongest now it has been in many years. So lots of work now is reduced to being on the internet, though the end goal is always to try and push things out into real places of struggle. We are talking about a long, long game now, though.
Usually, the media offer us images that always project us, as an audience, somewhere else, thus denying the relationship with the dimension of daily life. Through Tahrir Cinema, you have shown to Egyptian people images of a direct and shared experience, creating the conditions for not remaining a passive spectator but part of an ongoing narrative. What have been the criteria for the selection and editing of the screened materials, whether they were images of the riots and of the violence of the police and military on civilians or film and how did you choose the places where they were shown?
We primarily tried to show films and videos that were being kept off television, that spoke to an Egyptian audience and that were somehow in line with the broad ideology of the revolution in 2011. We had a rolling group of curators, we had guest film-makers present their works, we took requests from the audience. Every night it was a bit different, but the loose political aim of showing people images that would inform, energize and support their political will – which they were already enacting by being in Tahrir square in the first place.
From the so-called Western democracies, it seems like the only field of politicization possible for Egypt has been the one of the social network. From this, it has been meant that phenomenon defined “Arab spring”. Your experience as Mosireen appears in this sense paradigmatic. What are the substantial differences and the jump between the image produced in the time of struggle in Cairo and the one revised and widespread in “real time” by the international media as the “Arab Spring”?
Well the media showed itself to be very ill-informed. Firstly, the narrative of shock and surprise that there are young and secular Egyptians who are capable of intelligence was incredibly boring. The fact that the mainstream media didn’t actually interrogate the fact that for ten years they had been unthinkingly peddling stereotypes, that they didn’t recognize their role in the marginalization of an entire people – it wasn’t surprising, but it was cheap. And then beyond that the media is characterized by hysteria and by judgement. So really when you want is calm analysis, you are constantly having to deal with some kind of hysteria. It’s very tiring and it is really remarkable that there has been no evolution on that front at all. There are a few decent reporters, but overall the media coverage has been consistently unhelpful.
The square has become the field of visibility taken by the insurgency and the revolutionary movement, and it has also been the epicenter of your activity. The image of the square was the one that more than any other has summarized the Egyptian uprising. After the end of the occupation, have you tried to work on other spaces, at the margins, out and away from the square? In other words, have you attempted to make other emerging areas of politicization in contemporary Egypt visible?
Yes, of course. The square was a powerful symbol but it also quickly became problematic. Political change does not come about simply through the taking and holding of public space and it became a tactical problem throughout 2011 to 2013 that the strength of Tahrir as a symbol meant people kept returning to it long after its effect was over. So, yes, as Mosireen we worked to cover events in other cities; to make videos about social justice issues, economics, housing rights; to try and archive the collective memory of the revolution outside of Tahrir. So, absolutely, when we were at the peak of our work this was a central part of what we were concentrating on: how the revolution was alive and being fought in spaces outside of Tahrir.
As a collective, it seems that you have been organized more as an operative platform than as a traditional “political group”. In this sense, you have confronted yourself and shared footage made by a plurality of people and groups. How have you organized yourself and how have you changed your strategy and aptitude during the development of the revolution and the deep repressive turn (from the Mubarak fall, throught Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood to the present military regime)?
Well right now this is a key question. Right now the Collective is on a kind of pause as we all try and work out how (and if) we can continue to be relevant as we all adjust to the realities of the Sisi regime. We were never a traditional political organisation, we worked mostly as volunteers, always without a hierarchy. We responded to events as best we could, and covered some things much better than others. We took our energy and our motivation from the events around us, and hoped that we also contributed energy back into the struggle. But now things are very very tricky and we are trying to work out how we can continue and still be relevant.
During your experience have you ever been in touch with other collectives outside Egypt, which were involved in similiar practices, coming from different political surrondings?
Yes we had a lot of contact with people. Lots of activists that passed through Egypt would come to Mosireen and we’d talk, and often they would put on public presentations about their work. We had people from Palestine, Mexico, Iran, the UK, the USA and Greece to name a few. We haven’t ever actually produced any work in collaboration, though lots of our footage from the revolution has found its way into the works of other filmmakers and collectives. Now, as things have taken such a turn for the worse for us, is a time when we actually need to talk to other groups more than ever. To find out what it was they did when they thought things had hit rock bottom.
Your visual practice overcomes the borders of documentary filmmaking and counter- information, placing itself in a territory of interseption between activism, art and filmmaking. In which sense these forms of actions are important today? From your point of view, which is the role of art in these processes of struggle? Where the figure of the artist has to place himself?
Yeah we normally call what we do agit-prop. I would say in most of the work we’ve done the ‘artist’ is not present at all. Our house style is very straightforward, we really work just as an intermediary between the subject and its audience, we would film with families of the martyrs or people who were injured or doctors or workers – and really try and remove ourselves from the equation. In other films there is a little more artistry, or you could call it manipulation. There are films that try and pull at your emotions by using music or poetry or editing tricks. As a film-maker obviously it is fun to put those kinds of films together, but you can’t always do it. Partly because of time, at its height, we were putting out dozens of films in a month. And also because the subject matter doesn’t always allow for it. If you’re covering a protest, or filming in someone’s house and the most important thing is what they have to say, then you, as the filmmaker, don’t really have the right to get in there and try and sex it up. You can edit it to make it comprehensible, but not really much more than that.
So art definitely has a role, but it has to be in the service of the subject, it has to be appropriate to it and – if you’re subject is the under-represented or the oppressed – should be respectful.
Mosireen Collective: http://mosireen.org/
The Maspero Massacre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=00t-0NEwc3E
The Crimes of Mohamed Ibrahim, the Minister of the Interior: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L72HdNNRF9Q
Prayer of Fear: http://vimeo.com/75644792
The Camel Battle: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7F3hbTrw9EU
Martyrs of the Egyptian Revolution: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=47IPxAnDdtg