Alisa Lebow believes that film is important both for any revolution’s propaganda efforts and for expressing aesthetic transitions from prior ruling ideologies and practices. Accordingly, all 20th-century revolutionary movements saw visual strategies being reconceptualized.
So in 2013, the filmmaker and scholar received a grant from the UK’s Leverhulme Trust to make an interactive documentary about independent and documentary filmmaking in Egypt since 2011.
Lebow came to Egypt in 2013 and 2014 to conduct video interviews with over 30 people working with film, recording a few hundred hours of interviews that she then edited into shorter clips and organized by theme. She also asked for access to interviewees’ film projects, so if they were talking about a particular scene or aesthetic practice, she could extract an example and include that too.
The result, the website Filming Revolution, launched last month. Largely in English, it is searchable by theme, by project or by person and its content is mostly video clips, alongside an article written by Lebow on each interlocutor. Here writer and curator Nida Ghouse and Mada’s culture editor Jenifer Evans talk to Lebow about her process, other projects with similar aims, the website itself, and its implications for our understanding of image-making practices today.
Jenifer Evans: One thing I’m very struck by is this design where everything’s moving around and it’s all cross-referenced. It feels interactive in a fluid way. You’ve been creating the software with a developer.
Alisa Lebow: His name is Hüseyin Kuşcu. He’s a programmer, who’s done a lot of work with artists actually, and his company is called Kakare Interactive. We’ve been working on Filming Revolution for two years, sometimes meeting once a week. He’s not got a huge team, it’s just him really, and a fantastic designer [Asım Evren Yantaç] that he brought on.
JE: Are you thinking of making the software available to other people? Do you envision a future for it elsewhere?
AL: I wish I did. My inclination is that anything we do for political purposes be open access. The problem is that the coding is a bit like a homemade airplane. It’s so complicated, and there are so many patches and behind the scenes work that it’s not actually something we can open now that we’ve developed it. It’s not like pad.ma, which is much more simple software that people can easily figure out how to use.
Nida Ghouse: My sense is that even if the code were to be open source, so as to be reusable, there is — besides what you’re describing insofar as the technological realm of the backend — the intelligence of the frontend, which relies on the intellectual labor you’ve done of actually working with the interviews in the way that you have.
AL: Yes, that’s another issue. I have two dreams for the site, one is to make it bilingual, in Arabic and English, and the other is to expand it horizontally so there could be sites about filmmaking that’s been coming out of Tunisia, Syria, Palestine — anywhere that’s had major uprisings. There could be a historical aspect too, Cuban cinema, Soviet cinema.
But it requires not only a certain sensibility but also an incredible amount of work. I wouldn’t be able to do it all myself, but then how do you train people to do the type of interviews that I’m hoping would be done, and how do you get it so that it actually works laterally as well? The site is a homemade airplane on both the front and back ends, it’s quite idiosyncratic. I guess that’s what I brought to it, but maybe that’s my shortsightedness, I should have tried to make it more uniform. Maybe.
NG: Could you think back as to that decision? You mentioned pad.ma, and given that there are other formats out there, there is something that happened because of the decision you took that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, if you had used something already in existence. Could you think back to that moment?
AL: Absolutely. It was an ongoing moment. I did a lot of research. I think interactive documentary generally speaking is the most exciting thing to happen to documentary in decades, and I’ve been interested in it since the very beginning, the early 2000s when it was really preliminary and nothing ever worked. I imagined this would be where new things could happen.
I haven’t made a film per se in a long time. I’ve been doing more academic work, and I thought of all people I should be able to combine my scholarly work with my practical work, my filmmaking, so why not do that in the interactive zone.
So I’ve been looking and looking, and there’s some amazing interactive projects now, but most of them are either working in a storytelling mode, a narrative mode, which seems a little bit counterintuitive to me — I’m not sure why we’re still stuck with a linear narrative. Or there’s the academic side. And those, pad.ma included, are very good for research, for searching and finding things a researcher might want, but they’re not experiential, they’re not conceptual. They’re a little bit like going to a library, which is great, it’s really helpful, but I had a different vision. So a hybrid, a creative project that had a conceptual basis and could express that visually, and which would still be useful as a research tool. And I didn’t find that, and I looked hard.
JE: When we were talking before we said there was something a bit gossipy about the project, maybe partly because we know some of the participants, and you mentioned being inspired by the Danish artist Minna Henriksson’s map of the Istanbul art world that she’d made as an artwork. Are there any other things like that that helped you think about the project at the beginning?
AL: Yes, there are. There’s a website I saw, that it turns out Hüseyin my programmer was involved with, as was the designer we worked with. It’s called Becoming Istanbul and it actually resembles this project a little bit. Becoming Istanbul has more of its own video material, whereas mine is filmically a little more derivative, so the filmed material apart from the interviews is actually by those I’ve interviewed, it’s not my creative contribution. So my creative contribution had to be the platform, and the way in which the material was going to interrelate. My project is a lot more complicated, both on the back and front end, than Becoming Istanbul – there’s a lot more cross-referencing.
Attempting to create small virtual conversations among a community of people, any time you try to create a community whether virtual or otherwise, you could describe it as a little bit gossipy. You’re creating relations, so who is related to whom, and is that something they would approve of, there’s all sorts of questions you can start to ask.
NG: We were interested in those interconnections and what other forms you see them in. It’s good to get that reference.
AL: I wish I could say there were loads of references, but there weren’t. I actually thought, is this impossible, has nobody done this already? It doesn’t seem like this big of a deal to try and create what I’ve been calling “curated dialogues” or virtual conversations around issues or ideas, not so much storytelling, which is where the industry is going with interactive documentary.
JE: You mentioned before that to access filmmakers dealing with the sort of things you wanted to talk about, you started by asking acquaintances in the art and film worlds for contacts, and then later you began relying on your production coordinator Laila Samy for a broader circle of access. I wonder how that worked — and again back to that question of who might have been excluded, because their work is below the radar or because of a language barrier or whatever.
AL: My relations with the Egyptian film and art world before I started this project were nominal, so I was really starting from the ground up. Luckily I do know programmers and artists and curators and thinkers who’ve done a lot of work in the Middle East, and many of them have contacts and connections in Cairo, so the initial circle of people I was put in touch with were people in the international circuit already – people showing in biennials or connected to the Berlin Film Festival, or people who had become known since the revolution having put out early work.
I wanted to be talking to people developing longer or elaborate projects, not just people recording on their cell phones and uploading on YouTube. I wanted people who were trying to think filmically — and I mean filmically broadly — I don’t expect them to be working with 16mm film or something. That was one thing. The other thing was that they needed to be based primarily in Egypt. There were a few exceptions.
In terms of how I got past the internationally renowned circle, that really depended on Laila. Laila is an activist, a trained filmmaker, an actress, and she had her hand in a lot of projects, she knew of a lot of things that maybe hadn’t been funded yet or were in preproduction, production or post production. She knew people flying below the radar, at least flying below my radar.
Language was definitely not a barrier, despite the fact that most of the interviews were done in English and there’s a varying degree of fluency – Laila could help with translation and if people preferred to speak in Arabic, we were happy to do that.
I tried to draw the line at documentary or experimental independent film. I didn’t do very much mainstream, feature filmmakers, I didn’t interview people who would have a different kind of audience than this project had in mind. I also tried to steer away from films that didn’t seem like they were going to go anywhere.
NG: You mentioned that you weren’t so interested in following someone who was recording on a mobile and uploading. At the same time you’ve articulated that the project is for you something that’s experimental and on the cusp of what documentary could be. There’s so much work that’s happening, for example, in terms of mobile phone footage. And the fact is that in the website there’s a focus on individual filmmakers, in relation to a moment that is conceptually seen as otherwise.
There were questions that were coming up in a few conversations I was having about how do you deal with this excess of images. When the focus comes down to individuals or projects, then what gets left out — not in terms of names of people, but in terms of a wider spectrum of what this moment’s relationship to image-making was. Maybe this concern isn’t at the core of the project as you’ve articulated it, but it still feels like it’s there asking to be addressed.
AL: I think so. I think whenever you want to conceptualise a project you come against a necessary limit – you can’t do everything. My sense was that there was a bit of overinflated excitement around the Facebook revolution, revolution 2.0, the online presence of all the material. And there’s also a tremendous amount of writing and scholarship around that, so I didn’t feel like they needed me to chime in there.
On the other hand I’m not remotely opposed to mobile phones as cameras, for example, and considering that filmmaking – absolutely. If someone was working with material they had downloaded from YouTube or making an extended piece based on material they had shot all on a mobile phone, they would certainly have been included. Lara Baladi is working with this incredible archive she downloaded from YouTube and Facebook during the revolution, a lot of “shoot it, cut it, upload it” type of material, but it’s the consideration of that material as the basis for a project. There’s also 18 Days in Egypt, the interactive website, that asks people to make pieces and upload them and participate in the “telling” of the history.
So I’m interested in the people contextualising this material or working otherwise – maybe they’re not making film at all about the revolution, there are plenty of people on the website who absolutely wanted to distance themselves from that. Either because it’s premature, the revolution isn’t over yet, you can’t encapsulate it in a film, or those films feel impoverished to people. There were lots of reasons people didn’t want to be making film about the revolution.
So it’s never going to be technological, you can use a mobile phone camera, you can use a 16mm, or no camera at all if you’re downloading material. I’m interested in the works that conceptualise something beyond “I was here” or “this happened,” beyond the document.
JE: You had mentioned there was just one person who said they didn’t want to be involved, because they were sick of talking and making work about the revolution. Now that the site’s actually launched, and watching the content and being transported back to a particular moment that’s kind of dissipated, I wonder how some of the people are reacting now when they see themselves talking. How do people feel looking back at that moment when they’re saying things they wouldn’t really be able to say now, or they wouldn’t really feel now? Have you had any reactions from them?
AL: No — I think we should do a forum.
AL: It would be fascinating to get five to ten participants to look at the site and have a conversation about how they feel about it.
The thing is, I was doing my interviews in 2013 and 2014. I consider that I came to the conversation late but that was a productive move, because I wasn’t in there pumping people for information as everything was happening. I came later when there was time to reflect. People hadn’t been hounded for interviews for quite some time and so there was time to think about what they had been saying before and where they’ve come.
I’m interested to hear your thoughts. I’m sitting here in London wishing I could be part of the current conversations. How do you think it’s going to play?
JE: It’s interesting because we were talking about this the other day, because you know the book launch we were doing [with Malak Helmy] was for this book — what’s it called Nida?
NG: No Fantasy without Protest. It took us two years and there’s just three texts in it, and part of why it took us so long was because the ground kept moving and you couldn’t actually say what you thought you were wanting to say any more. And many of the conversations that led up to these texts actually happened over the course of 2013. And I would say that 2013 was confusing. It wasn’t done yet — you were still in the moment that had passed, and you were simultaneously aware that it had ended, at least that was our sense through this project. Then when we got down to writing by the end of that year, so much of what we had discussed in the months prior was no longer valid, as what we felt, or could feel.
AL: Yes that may end up being true, maybe we’ll need to come back and re-interview people. That’s also possible I suppose. There’s also something to these various moments also having their place, right?
NG: Of course.
AL: The first trip was about a month after the curfew was lifted, and people were just kind of getting back on their legs, going out again, testing the waters and seeing what is really up. The second time I came back to do a set of interviews was right during the Sisi election.
NG: So this is already at the end of 2013.
AL: Yes, and almost middle of 2014. So I think it was a really interesting time to talk to people about their thoughts about filmmaking after the revolution. Things are kind of sinking in, in very interesting ways.