Renowned film analyst Ratnottama Sengupta revisits a page from her past, weaving history and films into an eyewitness account of events that had occurred as chaos reigned on the streets of Cairo, Egypt.
Cairo Film Festival, November 27 – December 6, 2012
“This one week will change everything,” Amir told Farah in The Winter of Discontent. Ibrahim El Batout’s recapitulation of the Arab Spring had inaugurated the 35th Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF) on November 27 of 2012. “It will take them one week to find out who uploaded the protest on the net,” the activist tells the journalist, “but one week later this government may not be there.” These words were borne true in January of 2011. They had sounded ironic when the festival was flagged off on the sixth day of Tahrir Square 2 — by Egypt’s Minister for Culture, Mohamed Saber Arab. He had hugged festival director Ezzat Abu Ouf who was in tears as he said, “In difficult times, it is important to protect one’s freedom of expression.”
It surely must have been difficult to host the festival that was paused following the Revolution. “I am Positive” was the slogan of CIFF that urged ‘positive thinking’ on revolution and freedom. Besides the inaugural film by Ibrahim El Batout, who mastered shooting in war zones for international channels, there was an entire section devoted to cinema of revolution. These documentaries included Good Morning Egypt that displayed people’s mixed emotions on the eve of dismantling Mubarak’s regime. The Road to Tahrir Square searched for the roots of the Egyptian revolution in the country’s labour movement. Eyes of Freedom and Street of Death documented the demand to speed up Presidential elections and handing over of authority from the Military Council to a Civilian government. By the end of the day in January 2011, the police and army had attacked the demonstrators and forced them to evacuate Tahrir Square, outraging the world by the human rights violation.
All this would have been perfect material “to express the heritage of the past, the reality of the present and the dreams of the future” – to quote the city’s Governor, Osama Kamal. For, “cinema records and relays to the world stories of our lives, our thoughts, feelings, social issues, principles…” And “meaningful art is one of the basic pillars of struggle and progress of a people,” he declared. That is why the logo of the revived CIFF depicted the hawk, a symbol of the pharaohs, perched on the metal arm of the revolutionaries in the precious metal of gold.
But it had turned ironic as the awards were cancelled due to the reality outside the Opera, close to the Square and venue of the festival that seeks to empower the youth by providing a platform for their talents. On Thursday, Qasir el Niel bridge leading to Tahrir Square had been blocked off. The museum housing the treasures of Tutankhamen was closed as it was on the turbulent Square. People — reportedly paid by the Brotherhood — were being trucked in for Saturday’s show of strength. Deaths were being reported from outlying areas where the Opposition was more restive as the channels were agog with news that the draft of the Constitution was ready and “any hour now” President Mohamed Morsi would sign it, pre-empting the opposition by the judiciary, intelligentsia, and the liberals who would lose much of their freedom if the Shariat laws would be enforced in Cairo’s open society.
The “action replay” on Tahrir Square was protesting the President’s move to arrogate himself extraordinary powers “until the new Constitution is in place.” Their objection was that he had pushed out the Christians and liberals from the Constituent Assembly, in order to ensure a smooth passage of the Constitution and present it as fait accompli before its expected date.
Yes, that one week in November 2012 had once more changed the course of history on Tahrir Square.
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL