Ethical Reflections on Activist Film Making and Activist Subtitling

Salma El-Tarzi

Translated by Robin Moger

This essay reflects on a number of issues from the perspective of a filmmaker who has been deeply involved in the events unfolding in Egypt since January 2011. The issues in question concern the creative input of translators and the extent of their ownership of a work to which they have contributed voluntary labour, how and why subtitles may be taken into consideration from the very beginning of the process of making a film or a video, and the ethical contours of the activist filmmaker/subtitler relationship. As a filmmaker, I have a very clear line dividing my work as an activist making videos for a collective such as Mosireen, which I do anonymously and without claims to ownership, and my other work that I make as an artist or independent filmmaker. With videos I produce for a collective, I am always open to anyone suggesting or even adding or changing elements of the film, as long as within the group we know we share the same political agendas and goals. Within this context, do subtitlers have the same right to intervene as others? Have filmmakers like myself been taking them and the dynamics of the subtitling process into consideration as we produce our videos? The essay reflects on these issues and their implications for the principles of equality and solidarity that drive activist collectives such as Mosireen.

Salma El-Tarzi is an award winning documentary filmmaker. She received her BA in film directing from the Egyptian Cinema Institute in 1999. Salma worked as an assistant director and producer on several mainstream films and television commercials. Her documentary debut was in 2004 with the short documentary Do You Know Why, for which she received the silver award at Rotterdam Arab Film Festival. Since then she has directed several documentaries for Al Jazeera as well as the Red Cross Delegation. In 2013 she won the Dubai Film Festival award for best documentary director for her film Underground/On the Surface. She is a member of the Mosireen collective as well as Operation Anti-Sexual Harassment (OpAntiSH).

Image from Salma El-Tarzi’s chapter:

Figure 1: Placement of captions and subtitles in some Mosireen videos