Filming the Revolution

Almost a year ago the British Council ran a cinema project here in Rabat with ISCA, the Rabat film school, and the Scottish Documentary Institute. Two wonderful directors came out to work with ISCA students, running a short course in making documentary court metrage films. The constraints of a 5-minute film were unfamiliar – to begin with, the students thought of documentaries as necessarily much longer – and compression was a challenge, but one to which they rose splendidly. The week ended with four very accomplished films, collectively titled Rabat Stories, which will be shown at this year’s British Film Week in Rabat and Tanger, and will then be available on the British Council website. (They have also been selected for Medimed 13 in Spain, the International Festival of Kiev 2012 and one, Bitter Return, will show at Africa in Motion.)

The reason this comes to mind today is that the same team has been working in the last couple of weeks in Libya, and there’s an excellent article in the Guardian of October 1st, by Stephen Rose, about their project with the British Council there. They were supposed to be working in Benghazi (they had worked in Tripoli last summer), but conditions were in fact such that the Benghazi students had to commute to Tripoli for the workshop. They made half a dozen shorts, like those here in Morocco concentrating on individuals and their stories: “a novice graffiti artist, a fisherman, a car salesman, a museum guard (who describes how he hid artefacts to protect them from looting, and a female medical student learning to drive. ‘You’re a doctor, so if you hit someone, at least you can save them,’ her brother tells her.”

Very striking are the comments from Libyan film directors, many home from exile and working in difficult circumstances. They are in no doubt about the power of the image and the importance of restarting a film industry that was a serial victim of Gadafi’s paranoid vanity; its suppression a tool of disempowerment:

Does establishing a film culture really matter in a precarious new democracy with so many other pressing needs? Absolutely, says Mohamed Maklouf, a Libyan film-maker and former dissident. “Visual culture started the whole revolution,” he says. “If we didn’t see these images, which changed people’s minds around the world, nothing would have happened. So film is very important. Usually around the Arab world it has been tightly controlled …

Having had a discussion only this afternoon about the role of art in revolutions, I find this very interesting. It’s clear that visual statements – graffiti, placards, murals, photographs and film shot often on mobile telephones – were a vital part of the revolution; and the control as well as the creation of these images was a skill rapidly learned and effectively deployed. It’s clear too that the visual phenomena that emerged were liberating, that being able to say what had been unsayable for decades was itself a powerfully cathartic activity, symbolic of a society’s throwing off its chains. Music, slogans, pictures are the urgent, collectively motivating, fear-conquering stuff of the barricades.

But much of what emerged is of course ephemeral and essentially documentary, the raw material of future creation. The albums of Tahrir Square placards, funny, aggressive, quizzical, bitter, are photo-journalism, the first draft of art. So are the film-clips, the poignant, often painful graffiti and memorial portraits, the chants and the songs. I remain very struck by a comment made by the Moroccan film-maker Faouzi Bensaidi which I noted in this blog a few weeks ago:

“The human struggle today,” he said, “is to conquer its images,” and for film-makers, to develop reflective tools which allow a meaning that is sous rather than sur its apparent subject – indeed where the film-maker deals not with subject but, as he put it, with images. In the test-case of the Arab Spring, Faouzi puzzles over the constant demand for instant and literal visual responses sur the Spring, and a failure to understand that what the film-maker does, or should do, is to reflect, digest over time and then create something sous the Spring which universalizes responses by imagining the individual.

It takes time, a precious, rare commodity today. That’s the challenge, I suspect: to transcend the immediate response and to digest; to accept the central role of the image as spiritual provocateur; and to reflect slowly and at a distance, sousin the subject, in order to create something of a different quality and substance altogether. As Faouzi said, it’s still too early to see the real art of the Arab Spring, but when it comes it will come from people like these young Libyans and Moroccans who, in their different idioms, are beginning to do exactly what he described: creating something which universalizes responses by imagining the individual.

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