What if you witness a revolution, but things get worse?
Documenting the change from hope to depression and then finding new means to cope with the fading fragrance of revolution in Egypt.
Last week “Arij – Scent of Revolution” had its Egyptian premiere during the Goethe Film Week in Cairo. After an understated introduction, director Viola Shafik slipped to the back of the smallish screening room as the lights dimmed. I can say unequivocally that “Scent of Revolution” is a powerful documentary. In her brief introduction, Shafik gave the audience warning; just as the film had been difficult to make, it too would be difficult to watch. She did not disappoint.
The film documents a portion of the Egyptian experience, from the vantage point of four different individuals. Safwat Samaan, a Coptic political activist; Francis Amin Mohareb, owner of the largest collection of historical negatives in Egypt (both based in Luxor); Alaa El-Dib, a socialist writer; and Awatef Mahmoud, a 3-D designer (the last two both based in Cairo). Shafik began the process of making the film prior to the 2011 revolution. Her initial intention was to document the rampant corruption and destruction of Luxor, and the impact it was having on the city’s population. When the revolution occurred this path was diverted. As the initial euphoria gave way to disillusionment and tragedy for many, Shafik felt compelled to pour the frustration into her work. As she explains, “The four protagonists and their stories reflect my own development from hope to depression, up to finding new means to cope with failed expectations or – in other words – with the fading fragrance of revolution.”
Here’s an extended trailer.
The separate narratives played out in the movie are vastly different yet fundamentally interconnected. It is this fact that makes the film so powerful, and what compelled me to write this post. Following the screening, I was so taken aback by the film that I immediately went home to garner as much information as I could on the production, director, and story. What I found was a review of the film from its Berlin Film Festival premiere published in Variety. Reviewer Jay Weissberg offers the film great praise, yet is critical of Shafik’s failure to make the disparate narratives coalesce. This critique struck me, because for me, as for my fellow moviegoer, it was precisely the nuanced connections that made the film so impactful.
For myself as for many others, in the years leading up to the revolution, there was a constant and underlying sense that something had to give. Each time violent events occurred, such as the Nag Hammadi massacre of early 2010, which is addressed in the film, this sense was heightened. By documenting these and other, less publicized issues and events, Shafik paints a multilayered picture of why the revolution occurred in a way that also helps articulate why things have unfolded as they have in the last three years.
Since the 2011 revolution, there has been a tremendous amount of content created reflecting the events, but “Scent of Revolution” offers something new, including parts of the story, it seems, not known by many Egyptians. Take for example the work of activist Safwat Samaan, who has long been documenting forced evictions and rights violations in the Luxor area. Samaan shows amateur video of cranes destroying buildings; the residents panicked as they watch their homes, still containing their possessions, crumble to the group. This is a phenomenon that has occurred en masse for luxury development projects such as the Golden Triangle (the promotional video, set to ominous music, and rather ironically stating the project is “Beyond Civilization” is worth a watch).
The events documented in Luxor are a stark example of the kind of injustice, corruption, and inequality that lead to mass uprising, and the lesser-known examples provide more context, both for Egyptians as well as for outside audiences.
The film also reflects upon things unchanged, and lessons unlearned. In this vein, Alaa El-Dib provides compelling anecdotes and insightful commentary. However, perhaps the most striking example of this is police brutality before and after the revolution, as the same tactic of targeting the eyes of civilians is shown in Luxor in 2009, and on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo’s downtown core in November 2011. The film shows footage of officers being commended for successfully hitting their target, an illustration of just how deeply ingrained these attitudes are among law enforcement.
Each character and event in the film contributes to providing a holistic yet personalized description of how Egypt has arrived at its present juncture. It was clearly uncomfortable for much of the audience, as graphic footage and tragic events still fresh in the collective consciousness were depicted. The film felt distinctly cathartic for the director, and perhaps for the audience as well. In fact this was Shafik’s intention. As she explains: “This documentary is a way to deal with my own sadness through a sort of collective grief.” Shafik has done just that, in a thoughtful and poetic way.