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Conservatism and film

May 21, 2012


QUITE obviously, revolutions bring about not just political change but, in a domino effect, force change across the different dimensions of a society’s landscape. Some of these can be for the positive, others for the negative.

Some sections in Egypt must now confront this.

Showcased at the Cannes Film Festival this year is veteran Egyptian filmmaker Yousry Nasrallah’s film After the Battle, with events in real-time dictating the story of the Arab Spring in Egypt.

How the film came to be is itself a very interesting story, and there are not many instances in which fictional works have been created in a similar fashion. Nasrallah says he was inspired by films such as Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, which was shot amidst bombed-out ruins soon after the German army retreated from that city.

In Jan 2011, Nasrallah was under contract to make a different film entirely. The Tahrir Square uprising started around him and as events started to unfold it became obvious, he says, that there was only one story to tell. He set about to capture it. “We decided to portray what we were seeing — to try to make sense of what was happening,” he told the press at Cannes. “Writing history while it is unfolding is a way of showing reality. One interprets what is happening on the spur of the moment.”

The film shoot started in March and over the next eight months, After the Battle gained shape. This director had access to the revolution as it happened, with all the formidable attendant challenges.

The plot centres on a revolutionary young woman and an anti-revolution man, people from opposite sides of society, that meet as the uprising unfolds around them. Though fictional, the film is by all accounts a deeply political, on-the-spot account of the Egyptian revolution.

Co-scriptwriter Omar Schama had to write through the night when occasion demanded creating the scenes to be shot the following day. The film’s characters are involved in the actual events of those historic months as they happened, ending on Oct 9 when 25 people died in clashes between Muslim and Coptic Christian protesters and the police.

The central male antagonist, Mahmoud, is a horseman living near the pyramids, in the film one of the group of such pro-Mubarak men who rode into Tahrir Square on Feb 2, 2011, and charged the revolutionaries in what has become known as the ‘battle of the camel’.

Shooting a film under such circumstances is amongst the most challenging tasks one can imagine. Consider, after all, that in those months even news crews had trouble continuing their work and there were fears for their safety given the volatility of the situation. And they did not really have to worry about a plot or the aesthetic dimensions of their work.

Nasrullah and his crew had to resort to using a false title for the film, pretending that they were shooting a romance rather than a political account of a conflict that was deadly serious. (For the record, Cairo has since the silent age of films had a flourishing film industry. Of the thousands of films made in Arab-speaking countries during the last century and beyond, most are Egyptian.)

The director and his crew suffered intimidation and harassment, unsurprising given the high emotions and polarised views that prevailed at the time.

Still, the film was made, and is at Cannes at the moment. While the reviews of it are mixed, everybody seems to agree that if there had been a prize for the most topical film, it would have been a breeze for After the Battle.

But one of the possible downsides to the revolution was recently highlighted by Nasrullah himself. He said that the struggle to make the film was in itself an “act of defiance in a context where cinema is being attacked as a sin, where all arts — singing, art, music — are all being criticised by Islamist political parties”.

The actors’ commitment, he said, was “a commitment in favour of cinema, because we want cinema to continue to exist in Egypt”.

With the country’s long cinematic history, that has tended to push borders and break taboos, it is hardly surprising that now that the Islamists have emerged as the strongest political force in the aftermath of the revolution, artists and liberals fear that these forces will try to curtail artistic expression.

Representatives of political parties say that they have no intention of clamping down on the arts, but there is no brooking the argument that an Islamist government, even if it has a relatively liberal political ideology, is likely to be more right-of-centre than left. Is there no brooking this argument? Not necessarily. There is the example of Pakistan, where an Islam-oriented government oversaw the decline of the film industry and this decline can be traced to the ideology of the government. But the same has not been true for Turkey, even though the conservative Erdogan government has taken other steps to liberalise the country vis-à-vis religion: more mosques are being built now than was allowed before this government came into power, religious education has been recognised as being equivalent to state-sponsored education, the regulations regarding the headscarf ban are no longer applied as stringently as before and you can hear the azan over mosque loudspeakers again.

Perhaps the greatest instruction in this regard can be received from Iran. The 1979 revolution was unarguably Islamic in nature, quite unlike the strengthened position of Islamist groups, or even the nature of the groups themselves, in Egypt at the moment.

Prior to the revolution, the country’s ulema had tended to either ignore the cinema or reject it on the grounds of religion. Ayatollah Khomeini, however, believed that “cinema is one of the manifestations of culture and it must be put to the service of man and his education”.

The film-related Farabi Foundation was created in 1983 while the Mostazafan Foundation and the Jehad (later Ministry) of Reconstruction played important roles in film production, distribution and the media generally.

The government encouraged film production, purchasing equipment, setting up training institutes and creating employment opportunities. A number of the directors who have put Iran on the world map in terms of cutting-edge filmmaking started their careers then.

Today, regardless of the constraints within which Iranian films are made, they can nevertheless hold their own in comparison to the best in the world. In other words, religion or conservatism needs not adversely affect artistic expression. Conservatism need not translate into intolerance. Now, if only we in Pakistan could internalise this.

The writer is a member of staff.