New Angle on an Old Topic



Wed, 25 Dec 2013 - 12:38 GMT


Wed, 25 Dec 2013 - 12:38 GMT

The experimental documentary Crop explores the power of political images on our perception
By Sherif Awad 
Anyone who has ever held a camera has had to decide what goes into the picture and what stays outside the frame. What remains inside the frame has the power to impact how we feel about a subject, and careful framing can even affect how we feel about ourselves as a nation. Such is the premise of Crop, an experimental documentary about Egypt’s 2011 Revolution. Co-directed by Egyptian Marouan Omara and Danish filmmaker Johanna Domke, Crop follows a fictional photojournalist around the actual building of the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper. This photojournalist, representing the ‘everyman’ state employee’, missed the 18 days of revolution due to a hospital stay, and when he returns to his work in the newspaper, his life seems not quite the same. His narration, scripted from interviews with real Al-Ahram journalists, gives a personal reflection on the media ploys of the old regime and how they are changing. In the process, the filmmakers reflect upon the impact of images in the Egyptian Revolution in 2011 and put it in relation to the image politics of Egypt’s leaders. Omara, born in 1987, first studied photography at the faculty of Applied Arts in Cairo and joined the Academy of Cinema Arts And Technology in 2006 to follow his passion for filmmaking. Starting his career as a freelance photographer, he showed his work in exhibitions on both national and international levels. He is currently preparing his first feature film “Repeated Stopping” which will be produced in the beginning of 2014. Domke, a visual artist born in 1987, grew up in Germany and Argentina and studied Fine Arts at the Royal Danish Art Academy in Copenhagen, Denmark and the Malmö Art Academy, Sweden. She has done a number of collaborative projects and participated in artist in residencies at Platform, Istanbul. Crop was screened in several film festivals around the world including International Film Festival Rotterdam, Milan’s Festival del Cinema Africano d’Asia e America Latina and the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan. Most recently, it screened at the Beirut International Film Festival in October. Domke talks about her experience shooting the film in Al-Ahram and her collaboration with Omara. Edited excerpts: How was the idea of this documentary conceived? Marouan and I met in a time where there was a lot of media attention on the revolution. It was about one year after the revolution and Cairo was full of camera teams, artists and photographers. Neither of us had the impulse to document what was going on in the streets. Marouan, who even took part in the revolution during the 18 days, had never considered taking a single picture. We were both fascinated by the need for images that the people and the media around the world had on the subject. We wanted to understand what impact these images had on people’s perceptions of Egypt and what it meant for the Egyptian people. Moreover, we wanted to go back in history to draw attention on how images were dealt with in the past, and what they meant in a political context.

We started our research by interviewing photographers and journalists from both national and international press. At a very early stage, we decided not to use any images or people to which the narrator refers to create a distance to them; we intended to make apparent how powerful the impact of an image is. These images are actually present in our memory like a blueprint. While we hear about Sadat’s appearance as a leader, we don’t need to see him standing in his uniform, because we can remember that. If we have never seen a picture of Sadat, we can actually imagine it. When talking about Egypt, we have an image in mind that probably resembles the picture that comes up.

The interesting question, though, is who actually constructed these images and what do they serve apart from being a fantasy? It was needless to talk about the images of the revolution. Everyone has seen countless images and videos in the media or over Facebook. In a film concerning the images about the revolution, why would we need to show them again? We wanted to draw attention to an internal change, one that has been going on in relation to images: the shift from a highly idealized representation of the nation to a national image that the people of this country actually take part in “whether by being in it, or making it,” as is said in the film. This is an invisible change, which in the film can be sensed by the viewer with the images that he is asked to imagine over the course of the narrative. In a way, you can watch the film in three different ways: whether you listen, you watch or you imagine. 1312 ETG.Courteys of: Johanna Domke and Marouan OmaraDate: 12/11/2013 Why did you choose to narrate the contemporary history of Egypt through this form: a photographer’s narration on images taken inside Al-Ahram newspaper? Naturally you cannot make a film without any footage at all. One day when we had an interview with a journalist at Al-Ahram, we got the idea to set our film entirely inside this building. It suddenly became apparent that this immense building is the big machinery that has been so actively defining the images that we have been talking about throughout history. At the same time it is a wonderful representation of society itself, presenting it from top to down, from the highest-ranking offices to the lowest workers, displaying all sorts of hierarchies and power structures. The narration is based on the many interviews we carried out with photojournalists, and the narrator is a fictitious character who gives voice to the many stories we heard. In this way it is both true and fictive. This character — “whose name is Ahmed but it could also be Amr,” as it is said in the beginning of the film, is the story of one who could be many. We move through the building, where he has worked or even still works. We look for him and see him in everybody we come to meet.

Did you face any problems or difficulties in presenting the documentary to the Egyptian censorship? Was it easy to get permits to shoot inside Al-Ahram’s buildings? It was extremely difficult to get access to the Al-Ahram and even more so to obtain a shooting permit. We were lucky, though, with the timing of our request. It was during the first round of the presidential elections, when Al-Ahram was shifting heads of departments all the time to appear more open and transparent. We had a letter of support from the Goethe Institute that passed over many desks and collected stamps and signatures. It was a process that took about four months and cost us endless phone calls, visits and nerves. In the end we believe that neither of us would have gotten access without the other… Johanna by herself would have been too suspicious and Marouan would probably not have been taken seriously! Our combination confused them and they gave us the permission, after we paid quite an amount for a location fee. Until now the film has only shown in Cairo during the Goethe Institute Film week and on smaller occasions during talks we gave in institutions like Townhouse Gallery. There have been no incidents from an official side.

How was your experience shooting in Ahram? Once we had the shooting permit it was easy to deal with the people in charge. They allowed us to film in the entire building. Of course, there was always a representative of the public relations department present to survey our shooting. We were generally very impressed by the people working at Al-Ahram. We had thought we would get many more questions or reactions regarding our presence with a camera. We later assumed that people knew that it is not easy to enter the building with a camera so we obviously had all the legitimacy we needed. They were told by the PR department to look serious and efficient while working. The result was that they kind of ignored us while observing us thoroughly from the corner of their eye.

What was the feedback when you screened Crop at Rotterdam Film Festival and other festivals? The reactions were very positive and the audience appreciated the alternative view on the subject very much. Our most memorable screening we had was the one in Cairo, where you really could feel that it reached people in a different way. It was a very touching moment. Tell us about your future projects. We now are planning a documentary project that will take place in Sharm El Sheikh. It deals with the cultural confrontation between the tourists and the Egyptians working there. We have been selected to take part in the Dubai Film connection at the Dubai International Film Festival in December 2013, where we will present and develop the project. It was previously short-listed for the Robert Bosch Co-Production Award. et



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