A few years ago, when filming a documentary about Cairo rubbish collectors, Mai Iskander recalled how one of her subjects made a joke inside his home about the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
"They made a big deal about me erasing that part and they were very paranoid," Iskander said of the family.
But when she turned her camera on to Tahrir Square early last year, as she followed the young journalist Heba Afify covering the aftermath of Mubarak's removal, "people openly talked about Hosni Mubarak", Iskander said in an interview. Through Afify's singular yet bird's-eye perspective, the filmmaker vividly captures the dizzying days immediately after Egypt's revolution in her new film Words of Witness, which had its North American premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June and is now travelling to other venues. While the country's post-revolution narrative is far from complete, Iskander views her documentary as chronicling the "first chapter" in an ongoing story.
Several scenes in the film feature the 22-year-old Afify in the thick of crowds as she reports on developments ranging from families searching for loved ones who went missing during the revolution to religious tensions brewing in a nearby town. A one-woman field crew on a small budget, Iskander, 38, was alongside Afify, in the whirlwind.
"It did feel scary at some points," the soft-spoken Iskander says. "You never knew how things would go."
It's that danger on the street that becomes a flashpoint as the movie cuts to the intimate setting of Afify's home. Afify may be too intrepid for her own good. Her watchful mother reminds her that she's from "a good family".
Yet, Afify is as much a part of the story as the events that she seeks to cover. "My parents need to understand that the rules that were broken during the revolution are going to stay broken," she asserts.
Even as her journalistic ambition seems to clash with the propriety expected of a young Egyptian woman, it's also clear that her mother's plea to stay indoors at night is rooted in legitimate concerns about the violence beyond. As one man put it at a Los Angeles screening, her mother, whose humour and drama fills the screen, almost steals the show. Similarly, off-camera, Iskander, whose father is Egyptian and mother is Czech, dealt with an aunt who worried about her whereabouts during the filming.
With compelling female protagonists, Iskander has achieved one of her goals. After making Garbage Dreams in 2009, Iskander said foreign viewers were always curious about women in the Middle East, but they also held a lot of preconceived notions. In addition, she wanted to alter outsiders' conceptions of Egyptians, humanising them beyond panoramic portrayals of their mass protests. Hence, the splicing of the day's events with Afify's individual struggles and big-picture questions on the country's democratic awakening and the place of military control.
"The Arab world, in general, is so sensationalised … this is my way of making it more relatable," the New York-based director said. To reach as broad an audience as possible, she kept in mind that in the US market, it's harder to sell a movie that's not in English. In the film, Afify, who works for Egypt Independent, the English edition of the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, speaks primarily in English.
Iskander says there's much to learn from today's Egypt and that young people especially are more open to dialogue and eager to take action. She's partnered with Rock the Vote, a non-profit organisation that promotes young people's participation in the electoral process, for plans of a US tour to screen Words of Witness at colleges to get the conversation going.
At the Los Angeles showing in June, Iskander had added footage to highlight the presidential face-off between Ahmed Shafik and Mohamed Morsi, which was then just days away. In coming weeks, as her film heads to other festivals in New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere, she plans one final update to reflect Morsi's win, rounding off the film's arc: one president brought down, another taking his place.
Just as Iskander was struck by people talking freely about Mubarak, the revolutionary graffiti that blanketed Cairo's buildings likewise blew her away. It's the kind of expression she'd like to see extend into the film industry as well. "I don't think enough filmmaking, this kind of low-budget, documentary filmmaking, is encouraged in Egypt," she says. "There's so many great filmmakers in Egypt, but they don't know how to market to a western audience. I think that's going to change."
It will also depend on whether the market can make space for others to have a shot. "I'm hoping this movie contextualises things for Americans to be more interested in Egypt," Iskander says. "But I also don't think there should be [only] one film about the revolution."
Words of Witness will screen on Sunday at the Rhode Island International Film Festival in Rhode Island; August 17 to 23 at DocuWeeks in New York; August 24 to 30 at DocuWeeks in Los Angeles; and September 18 and 19 at the Copenhagen International Film Festival for Youth & Children. For more details, visit www.wordsofwitness.com.
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