Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage for Museum of Modern Art‘s Documentary Fortnight 2014 which runs from February 14th to February 28th. For more information visit www.moma.org and follow MoMA on Twitter at @MuseumModernArt.
For his debut feature-length documentary, British journalist and filmmaker Peter Snowdon constructs a dazzling and moving timeline of an imaginary revolution in the Middle East. But the footage that Snowdon used to imagine this revolution-that-will-be-televised is based entirely from the plethora of amateur videos uploaded to YouTube and/or Facebook during the actual revolutions that swept across Middle Eastern countries from late 2010 to 2012. These videos were shot by people who were in the eye of the storm of these revolutions—in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen, specifically—and so provide a very immersive perspective of them as they transpired. From this remarkable array of videos Snowdon builds an audiovisual document of an imagined pan-Arab revolution. For he does not identify the videos in terms of location or date (at least, not until the closing credits), thereby presenting a seamless series of events that transcends geographical borders. This lack of specificity echoes the film’s generic title.
Snowdon builds an audiovisual document of an imagined pan-Arab revolution. For he does not identify the videos in terms of location or date, thereby presenting a seamless series of events that transcends geographical borders.
The film’s opening and closing shots are of an awe-inspiring incoming tornado (also culled from amateur footage). We are in the present time. The film later reveals the reason for the selection of these images (a Pyotr Kropotkin quote that speaks of ‘social gales’), but it also foreshadows the eye-of-the-storm perspective of the footage that makes up the film. As the tornado gathers ground, one hears audio of people speaking in English and Arabic about Egyptians setting themselves on fire in protest; aspiring to an uprising like that in Tunisia; or the people of Syria. This audio also sets the tone for the regional blend of footage that follows. Cut to an intertitle of ‘7 days ago’ and we realise that the film will have a backward temporal structure.
This backward temporal structure enables Snowdon (and co-writer/editor Bruno Tracq) to outline the process of a revolution, beginning with people taking to the streets, chanting slogans, and bumping against rows of MPs. We are witness to a mosaic of individuals speaking against their rich, corrupt government leaders. As more people participate and express their dissent, ‘6 days ago’ entails direct clashes with riot police and smoke bombs, rubber bullets, and rocks flying in the air. The most harrowing footage thus far involves people getting shot or killed, including a cameraman whose footage we are watching, because riot police begin to use live ammunition. Subsequently, at a hospital, gurneys constantly roll by bringing freshly wounded bodies.
In the absence of location markers from Snowdon, the videos sometimes contain dialogue that specifies where a given scene is taking place: a solitary woman speaks of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali [Tunisia]; crowds tell Bashar Al-Assad [Syria] to get out or set fire to a larger-than-life poster of Hosni Mubarak [Egypt]; and a man speaks of Mohammed Bouazizi [the young Tunisian street vendor who set himself on fire in protest against what was done to him and his wares].
We are witness to a mosaic of individuals speaking against their rich, corrupt government leaders.
A break in action constitutes ‘5 days ago.’ The videos in this segment are marked by a biting sense of humour in the face of all that is happening, and so reveal different facets of the people participating in the revolution. One video is of a man explaining how his flat was shelled. Rather than lash out in physical anger or insults, he resorts to comical commentaries to highlight the senselessness of it all: ‘Is Al-Qaeda living in my hair? What did I ever do to you? I use words and you respond with bullets? Ever more absurdly, he relates what happened to his carpet and so asks rhetorically, what crime did the carpet commit for it to be bombed like that, or the cushions? He then calls for the Arab League to hold a meeting about his carpet. Another video is of a group of young men making a ‘potato bazooka’ and trying it out with vegetables as ammo. One of them remarks, half-jokingly, ‘My mother will kill me. I’ve destroyed the meal she was planning!’ Yet another video charts an ongoing conversation between the cameraman and his friends about the day’s date to properly tag his footage and nobody knowing it, a very wry commentary to images of being exposed to shellfire on the streets; even more sardonic is dedicating the footage to the Arab League.
Midway into this revolution (‘4 days ago’), action picks up again with back-to-back footage of women addressing their respective corrupt leaders in eloquent, varied ways. A young woman speaks of Ali Abdullah Saleh [Yemen] as an illiterate who plays the scholar because he does not know that under Islam women have as much right as men to work and fight against injustice. An old woman to Ben Ali, as she is surrounded by a crowd, sings a series of curse-like ‘May you…’ while the people around her reply with an ‘Amen!’ after each one. Such spirited conviction ultimately leads to mass prayer, silence, and then an outpouring of jubilation from one video to another. The revolution has entered a new phase to segue to ‘3 days ago.’
People survey the riches once accumulated by their toppled government leaders; clean and repair parts of the city; shake hands with the military; tear down an infamous prison’s doors; without violence and never losing sight of why they are doing it all in the first place. A camera approaches a man who witnesses these goings-on: ‘There will be so many good things. Nothing bad can happen.’ As the film winds its way back to the approaching tornado of the present time, a woman’s voiceover speaks of tomorrow as the first step towards change; what has happened is only the beginning, not the end.
The Uprising is arguably part of this beginning. As an unidentified cameraman exclaims earlier in the film, while riot police tell him to put the camera away, ‘The world must see what happened!’
[notification type=”star”]90/100 ~ AMAZING. For his debut feature-length documentary, British journalist and filmmaker Peter Snowdon constructs a dazzling and moving timeline of an imaginary revolution in the Middle East. [/notification]