Contextualizing Uprising: Interview w/ the mastermind behind 'Filming Revolution'

In the second half of issue.2’s Contextualizing Uprising feature, we explore Filming Revolution, the audacious interactive cultural project that attempts to map the complex national and personal histories of the Egyptian Revolution within the context of cinema.

The nucleus of Filming Revolution is its official website, which doubles as a archival playground with interviews of nearly thirty artists, activists, and filmmakers discussing their filmmaking work since the revolution which took place between 2011-2014 alongside many other national socio-political upheavals in the region, commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. Navigating the website is a labyrinthine metaphor for the intricate nature of its subject matter. When discussing revolution, there’s a popular approach to dilute the multifaceted narratives into a single proprietary experience that happens in a vacuum, but Filming Revolution flips the script and chooses to showcase the uprising and its citizens as active members of its continuous legacy.

SVLLY(wood) is honored to interview, Dr. Alisa Lebow,  the scholar and documentary filmmaker behind the unique platform.

Dr. Alisa Lebow editing the videos uploaded on the Filming Revolution website

Dr. Alisa Lebow editing the videos uploaded on the Filming Revolution website

 

SVLLY(wood): You’ve described your project as a ‘meta-documentary’, how do you define the word and why it’s the best template for Filming Revolution?

LEBOW: I guess you could say that I didn’t think of my project as a documentary in any familiar sense, but rather a platform to stage a kind of conversation, or curated dialogue, about other people’s documentary (and independent fiction) filmmaking, so in that sense, I thought the term “meta-documentary” was a more appropriate name for a project like this.

SVLLY(wood): You’re not only a filmmaker but also a film scholar and professor who has taught around the world! Has the process of curating Filming Revolution shaped how you teach film studies? How do your students approach your style?

LEBOW: Well, it has certainly started to shape how I perform my scholarship! It’s not the usual fare for a film theorist, I guess it’s safe to say. What is expected of us is that we write books and articles, which I also do, or have done, but this project to me represents a new way to do film studies—bringing it off the page, connecting it to the medium itself. I think of it as ‘Film Studies 2.0.’

As for my students, I have taught this project, usually in the context of either interactive documentary or representations of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ I think initially, students are slightly baffled by it—but then they get into it. I’ve had students write some really excellent essays using Filming Revolution as the basis of their research. That has been incredibly gratifying, I have to say.

SVLLY(wood): Many of the interviewees speak candidly on how many of the popular films that came out of the Egyptian Revolution were created by foreigners or to teach a Western audience. You’re not Egyptian but there seems to be a kinship with the project's' participants. Why do you think that is?

LEBOW: It’s interesting. The site is almost entirely in English, so that automatically suggests an outsiderness, both mine and the project’s. Clearly, in some real sense, it is just like those other projects made by and for foreigners. But there are a few things that might distinguish this project from the films about the Egyptian Revolution made my non-natives.

The first is that my project is not “about” the revolution, per se, so I am not attempting to narrate, frame, or “own” that event. There are understandable sensitivities about that and while it may be inevitable and even to some extent commendable to attempt to represent events that are not your own as an outsider, you will miss so many things, and you will also likely simplify things in ways that can’t do justice to those events. I didn’t want to put myself in the position of the expert in relation to those events.

I ask questions that I’m told few others had asked. As you noted, I’m originally a filmmaker and in fact, I got my start a long time ago, doing activist and advocacy documentary during the AIDS crisis in New York. So I come to these filmmakers as a kind of fellow traveler as much as a researcher, scholar, and foreigner, and perhaps that was somehow perceived by the people I spoke with. The encounters were more like conversations than interviews, and I think that dialogic aspect comes through as well. The conversation may have been initially steered by me—setting it up, asking the first few questions—but inevitably it went in whatever direction the filmmakers took it. I guess when you’ve got two filmmakers in conversation, it can more easily become an equal exchange, rather than a power-imbalanced interview with the interviewer situated as the expert and chronicler.

In fact, because I was really there to learn, to find out about projects and strategies, I think that made a big difference in the dynamic. I asked informed questions, sure, but the basis of expertise was quite firmly in the hands of those being interviewed. I had the privilege of talking to people who not only lived through and experienced events amongst the most momentous of our day, but who are accomplished and incredibly interesting filmmakers as well. I speak with them as a filmmaker, an activist, a sympathizer, and also a scholar. I suppose that despite our differences, there were enough shared registers between us to make us, in a way, kin. Maybe that’s what you’re perceiving.

SVLLY(wood): There’s a section on the website dedicated to ‘film as a weapon’ and ‘camera as a resource’ with video interviews and in depth notes. SVLLY(wood) lies on the margins of democratization of art and its resources, which is why we publish every issue digitally for free, so we’re very interested in your definition of the democratization of cinema.

LEBOW: By now it’s quite commonly accepted that media-making is in the hands of the people-more than ever before. Corporate media and powerful authoritarian governance may control the airwaves, but they don’t quite fully control the internet, and we have seen time and time again ways in which popular movements outwit and outmaneuver these behemoths using all of the tools at our disposal. This is more about media activism and what is often referred to as “citizen journalism[1]” than it is about filmmaking per se.

In my project, I distinguish these two areas of practice not by commitment (political or creative), but by timing and intentionality. Activist media is of the moment and for the moment, and as Khalid Abdalla says in his interview on the site, it’s made in the “shoot it, cut it, upload it” spirit. It’s meant to intervene in a pressing debate, to counteract a wrongful assertion, to have an instantaneous effect. It is not meant to have a long lasting one. The Argentinian filmmaker activist duo Solanas and Getino, when writing one of their many manifestos on Third Cinema, called it “pamphlet” filmmaking. It is meant to intercede strategically in a battle of images, perceptions, or over narrative. That is one type of weapon that film can be.

But film can also have much longer term goals, and this exceeds the pamphlet film or the YouTube clip. When film is used creatively for extended projects, it is a different kind of “weapon.” It can engage in much more complex debates and intervene at a more profound level than the immediate event. And really, it is in this type of more elaborated filmmaking, that the website is most interested.

SVLLY(wood): We’ve now ushered in the sixth anniversary of the Arab Spring––what do you hope Filming Revolution provides for its audience and within the framework of other visual media that documented the Egyptian Revolution?

LEBOW: These have been a harrowing 6 years and I guess no one can deny that we are in a   period of political retrenchment all around the world, not only in Egypt. 

For me the project does three things: It is a snapshot of a moment in time; a reminder of the generative power of uprising; and an archive for the future. I’ll try to explain.

1.     Snapshot: The interviews for this project were all conducted over a six month period, beginning in December 2013 and ending in June 2014. If you know your contemporary Egyptian history, you would quickly understand that they are bracketed by two momentous events in the course of the revolution. The first set of interviews took place a few months after the toppling of President Mohammed Morsi, and the military’s massacre of over 1000 of his Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Rabaa Square. The last set of interviews took place during the election and inauguration of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a member of the old guard, former head of the SCAF (Egyptian armed forces) as the 6th President of Egypt.

When I first arrived in Egypt to do these interviews, the four month long curfew after Rabaa had just been lifted. The mood was dark, you could almost say, brooding. Yet, it was also a time of reflection. People were not able to be out in the streets organizing, protesting, filming. They were at home or at work on the material they had shot, with time to think about what kinds of films they wanted to make or had been making. It was a good time to be asking questions—not in the heat of the moment, but in its aftermath. Although the initial euphoria had long faded, there was a reckoning of sorts, a kind of ‘what the fuck did we just live through!’ and what do we want or need to do as filmmakers, artists, activists, to make sense of it. For some, it meant moving on and doing projects long on hold. For others, it meant delving deep into their own archive of material and generating incredible work from it. For still others, it meant asking a lot of questions about image making and its relationship to change.

2.     Reminder: It serves as a reminder of the incredible creative and intellectual energy that comes in times of uprising. By bringing all of this material in one place you really get a sense of the range of projects and ideas that people have had in relation to such an important historical event in their, and their country/culture’s, life. The powers that be may be quick to discount this revolution (or any other insurrectionary movement) as a failure, and of course there are plenty of failures to be counted. But for me, these uprisings are nothing short of small miracles. They happen against all odds, and no one can predict how or why they occur. For me, it’s not about success or failure in the sense of the political changing of the guard, it’s about the consolidation of a kind of politics of the street, a rare concentration of collective energy, that has the power to change people at their core. What that unleashes is completely unpredictable, innovative, and irrepressible. The government and its repressive apparati (both public and private) can arrest and censor and attempt to curtail the effects, but some of that incredibly potent energy finds its way into all aspects of society, and the way it changes things is as yet to be revealed. Film and filmmaking is part of that process, and I consider it a political act of solidarity and hope not to forget this.

3.     Archive: It is an archive for the future. I think of this project as a resource for those interested in Egypt and the “Arab Spring” more generally, of course, but also for those interested in filmmaking in times of revolution. I anticipate a time –– in the not too distant future –– when some of the knowledge and strategies expressed here will be of use, not only to researchers (students, scholars, journalists, etc.) but to filmmakers who find themselves in similar circumstances. There are many things to be learned from this project.

SVLLY(wood): Creativity tends to live on despite the harsh realities of the political sphere; we hear that within the words of the people you interview but more recently with the anonymous Syrian film collective, Abounaddara Films, who publishes a short film every week. Given the climate of growing fascism in the West, and your knowledge of resistance struggles and visual documentation, do you sense a cinematic uprising?

LEBOW: Well, I’m not given to predictions, but as I say, I do believe there are uprisings to come, and the better we understand the various strategies of filming in times of political upheaval and filmmaking in its aftermath, the better prepared we might be in using filmmaking as a weapon in our own struggles with power. I don’t think it’s about a “cinematic uprising” per se, but film has been historically,[2] and will continue to be, an integral part of insurrectionary uprising. That’s one thing we can count on.

[1]  Lebow’s additional commentary: Citizen journalism is a term I am not overly fond of, because it seems to imply that citizenship is a necessary validator for a political voice, which I don’t believe or agree with. Certainly an undocumented person or a non-citizen has as much right to voice their political concerns as a citizen. In other words, I believe it is a mistake to invoke citizenship here.

[2] Lebow’s additional commentary: This is true at least since the Russian Revolution. Remember Lenin declared film to be the most important art for the cause of the revolution.

After building a career in documentary filmmaking, Dr. Alisa Lebow went on to pursue her Ph.D. in Cinema Studies from New York University and currently teaches at University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Author of multiple books on first person documentary filmmaking and Jewish culture.  For more information on Filming Revolution, visit the official website, www.filmingrevolution.org.