Rasha Khayat
Last updated: 9 May, 2012

Forbidden + 18 Days – a review of two revolutionary Egyptian films

Since last spring, all sorts of films have been sweeping festivals all over the globe, with Egyptian filmmakers being flown out to premiers and panel talks. It has been hard to miss a “spring flick” these past months. But are they any good? Rasha Khayat explores.

With the presidential elections in Egypt rapidly approaching, it is hard to believe that it has been over a year since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down. And yet, looking at recent developments, the first protests in Tahrir Square, the now iconic ground seem almost like years ago.

Especially in observing the massive force of artistic productivity the political changes seem to have unleashed, one could come to think that the Mubarak-regime must have been history for a very long time. And while the political situation in Egypt is more than fragile again these days, looking at the books, street art and films created right before, during or shortly after the revolution makes one almost nostalgic for the days when we all felt drawn to our TVs and laptops, hoping and praying for the people to topple the regime.

The power of these images is most evident in film. And since last spring, the poignantly coined Arab Spring, all sorts of documentaries and feature films have been sweeping the festivals all over the globe, with Egyptian filmmakers being flown out to premiers and panel talks. It has actually been hard to miss a “spring flick” these past months.

But are they any good? Can a work of art, especially as complex as a film, produced so closely to the actual events, properly reflect and comment?

Two films, each remarkable in its own way, have made the laps around international film festivals and echoed great media interest. On the one hand there is 18 Days, a collage of 10 short films by young filmmakers, depicting in little stories the mood during the 18 days of the Tahrir revolution.

The most astonishing fact about 18 days is probably its release date; the film was completed and premiered in May last year, only a mere 10 weeks after Hosni Mubarak stepped down.

The ten films tell stories from various walks of life – there is the young girl selling tea in the streets of Cairo and being pulled into the demonstrations (God’s creation by Kamia Abu Zikry), or a group of suburbanites trying to profit from the revolution by selling merchandise (When the Flood comes by Mohamed Ali) and a grandfather getting caught by security personnel together with his grandson during curfew in Suez (Curfew by Sherif el-Bendary).

The two most remarkable pieces however are by Khaled Marei (Revolution cookies) and Ahmed Alaa (Ashraf Seberto). Not only are these the most accomplished films from a story-telling point of view, but also the most endearing, regarding the characters. In a humorous, happy-sad way, Ashaf Seberto is the story of a local barber, whose shop turns into a field hospital during the protests. Revolution cookies depicts a young tailor, who has been accidentally locked into his shop for the entire revolution, not knowing what’s going on and only fearfully listening to the riot noises outside his door. He then decides to tape over some old music cassettes and record his thoughts, in case he dies and needs to be remembered. Personally, I believe it is one of the loveliest, warmest, yet funniest scenes of the film, as the young man achingly tries to decide whether to wipe a tape of Quran-recitations or songs of Um Kulthoum for his tape diary.

Altogether, 18 days is, albeit a bit too long, an enjoyable film that inevitably raises the question if it is desirable and possible for a movie to deal with such a recent and forceful political event. I look at 18 days, and I see pop culture, a folkloristic and romantic approach to tell some serious stories, and when it plays Sout el Horeyya, Amr Eids lovely kitsch song about the cry for freedom, which went viral on the internet a few days before Mubarak stepped down, over the closing credits of the film, one can’t help but suppress a little chuckle.

But maybe that’s just me, being a cynical westerner, and maybe a film like 18 days that shows the power, the energy and the unity of these first few days of the Egyptian revolution, is just what all of us and especially the Egyptians need to watch these days, to remind themselves and us what it was that had brought them together in the first place. And maybe it is just a kitsch and pop piece, but then again, that doesn’t have to be a bad thing either.

The second film is the real gem. Forbidden (Mamnou’3 in Arabic), by the young Egyptian director Amal Ramsis is a documentary, produced and filmed a year prior to the events of last spring, which according to the director went into final cut on the 25th of January 2011. Consequently, no danger of revolutionary kitsch.

Watching Mamnou’3 is like getting a lesson in recent Egyptian history, without the boring school-bit. It is a story, if you can call it that, of all that was forbidden under Hosni Mubarak. From public handholding to crossing particular streets and obviously almost all kinds of activist work, there have been countless restrictions on everyday life in Egypt. Through interviews with activist friends of hers, Amal Ramsis explains and reveals the hypocrisy of most of these laws, bans and restrictions, of what they do to people, their lives, their self esteem, their work and their view on the world.

Entertaining and very interesting, Mamnou’3 also basically shows us the deeper reason beneath the political movement that became the Egyptian revolution. Amal Ramsis has an activist background, so filmmaking is more than just a job to her.

“Making films under these massive repressions of the Mubarak-era and even now, afterwards under SCAF, is not much fun. You need a permit for every single little move, you need to get permission by the censors who’ll proof read your scripts and eventually will have some ‘suggestions’ for changes”, she says. “Therefor it is important to keep our work going, even now. The revolution is not finished yet.”

Is she scared of what might happen under a president from the Muslim brotherhood, since she and her family belong to the Coptic community?

“No, I don’t think it can get much worse. We pretty much have seen it all here in Egypt. One thing I wish for my country though is patience. And the energy to keep it going.”

So while 18 days seems more like a romantic, colourful picture postcard from Tahrir Square, Mamnou’3 is an informative, energetic, lively piece of work that surely will outlive the hype surrounding the kitsch of the Arab Spring. I’d love to see the latter being shown in schools, in Europe and the Middle East; there are lots to learn from it.