Media coverage for the Arab Spring has slowed down in recent months, but that doesn't mean things in the Middle East have settled down. Egypt, for example, is facing election woes, and the President they toppled more than a year ago has just been given a verdict for his various crimes.
And so we look back to the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution, as “Tahrir: Liberation Square” opens in limited release this week. The film, a verite account of the protests leading up to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, is a strong account of those tumultuous weeks, refusing to budge from the eponymous location as citizens call for a better tomorrow. It’s a captivating, highly focused documentary, a true pearl amongst similarly themed political/social-issue documentaries.
Prolific filmmaker Stefano Savona is behind the project (if you haven’t heard of him yet, you will), and we were able to discuss ‘Tahrir’ with him as well as his upcoming projects, the state of Egypt, his place as an Italian telling a Middle Eastern story, and even his opinions on Michael Moore flicks. “Tahrir: Liberation Square” is now playing at the Maysles Cinema in New York City.
I notice you have a number of movies released in the past three years…
Yes, I have never been so productive in my life. (laughs) It's a bit of a coincidence because one was doing the war in Gaza and was just like a witness of those days, a very particular movie. The following two, one is a project I've been working on for four years and it was simply finished in 2011, and Tahrir was a kind of an adventure that ended up as a movie. But usually I take much more time to make a movie.
My question is, how did you juggle all of these? You must have been shooting one, editing another…
The problem is that it's so difficult to finance the movies. The only way I can finance these things is by working on them, finding enough material to apply for some money from television or from the National Institute of Cinema here in France. Some of them never end up as a movie because I either can't finance them or the subject loses my interest and so on and so forth. Because of this, I used to do many projects at the same time and when I would feel that one of them is ready to be finished, so I get into it and finish it.
So you have abandoned, partially shot films?
Yup. But sometimes if they don't become a movie they can be used for other things. There is a very long project I have where I've been shooting over two hundred interviews with very old people in Sicily, about 85 to 105 years old, and I've been doing it for two years. Eventually I will try to make some movies out of these archives, but even if I don't get a movie out of it and it just stays as an archival thing or video installation, that's okay for me.
Given all of the countries participating in the Arab Spring, why did you specifically choose to document Egypt?
Before being a filmmaker, I worked in Egypt about twenty years ago. I felt that one day I should make a movie there, but I never could figure out what. I went back almost every year, and when the revolution began, I just had to go. I thought this was the moment where my relationship with Egypt makes sense, finally, for a movie. But in a way, it might have been Tunisia because I am Sicilian so I am near there, and I actually set my first movie in that country about 10 years ago. But my relationship with Egypt is special, so it had to be there.
Say Egypt went more along the lines that Syria unfortunately did. Was there a gameplan in that case?
Everybody in the square was almost refusing to believe in any alternative other than Mubarak leaving, and I understood that the second I got there. Very often I had been asking political questions for years, and I never received any answer in front of the camera, but at that moment in the square, everybody wanted to speak about politics in front of the camera! Nobody was afraid anymore, and everybody was banking on toppling Mubarak because otherwise they wouldn't be able to get back home.
While shooting, were you thinking of other documentaries to model this one after?
I didn't really have the time to prepare for this one because I decided to leave the following day, but of course all of the films I saw in the previous years had influenced me. When I was in the square, the very first movie that came to mind was the Maysles "Gimme Shelter." I had watched it very recently, so I told my girlfriend (who was eventually there and the editor of the movie) to keep watching movies about the music and concerts in the '70s because it's the kind of atmosphere that we had to render. Some direct cinema, and the work of William Klein, May 68 in France, or even the work on "Muhammad Ali The Greatest."
There can be times where a culture could be sensitive about an outsider telling their stories. Did you encounter this at any point, whether it be shooting or at a screening?
I'm always afraid of the reactions of the Egyptians, because I am not Egyptian regardless of how long I was there for. Nobody ever bothered me in Tahrir Square, so once I became part of a group of people, if anybody ever asked who I was, they would ask the group but it was never really threatening. However, the few times I left the square I felt really in danger because at risk to be arrested or attacked by people against the revolution or simply against strangers. Especially for one specific week, people were hunting for journalists. Recently I showed the movie to Yousry Nasrallah who was at Cannes with his movie, and I was very anxious for his reaction. He told me that the Egyptian directors were not shooting during the revolution, they were a part of it, so in a way he was envious that I was able to document it. This was a bit reassuring. The first official screening in Egypt will be later in the month, so I'm curious about how Egypt will react to that. The way you shoot feels like the camera is the POV of an Egyptian partaking in the demonstration, rather than something documenting it. It's not touristy at all. I always tried not to have an Orientalist look to it, this is a place I've worked at for so long, but I always find a risk of falling into kind of an exoticism, just a kind of look that is not from the inside, because of course I am not Muslim or Egyptian. In a way, I feel like I belong there.
What's your take on most modern kinds of political documentaries? The kind with condescending narration or cute cartoons to illustrate points, post-Michael Moore stuff?
I hate them. Even with Michael Moore, it's a propaganda movie, it's composed in the same way. I hate all propaganda, even if I share 99% of their point of view. If you watch some propaganda movie from the Third Reich, it's the same kind of movie. They use the same stereotypes in the editing and the same way of degrading their adversary. It's funny, the only time in my life when I had sympathy for George W. Bush was when I was watching "Fahrenheit 9/11," which was weird because I never expected that to happen. I just don't think it's cinema, it's something else. I try to do the opposite… obviously, in every edit you make there is subjectivity, but I think that movies should give the freedom to the audience, and they should be able to go around in the movie and find their own way.
What are your thoughts on Egypt now, given the Mubarak trial and election?
It's very fluid and complex, every day I have news from there and it's always different, every day. There's a lack of hope from many of the friends I met in Tahrir, but at the same time there is still much hope because people are resisting. I think we have to judge this current situation not in the times of current news, but as a part of history. Of course, one year is not enough. The Mubarak regime lasted for thirty years, and we have to see what comes out of this history in two, three, or even ten years before we can say it was a defeat or that everything will end up as a political tragedy. There are plenty of things to be optimistic about, though. First of all, there is a public opinion now in Egypt which never existed before. So even the worst regime that might try to come in place, they'd have to deal with this public opinion. This is the beginning of something at least.
What's next for you?
There's the previously mentioned Sicilian archival project, there's another project in Gaza where I've been shooting a portrait of a family there, and I've been working about it for two years. This will eventually become a movie, I think I will finish in 2015. I also just started shooting another project, I started following a primary school in Palermo where a friend of mine is a teacher. The project is to stay with them for three years, I will follow them to the end of the primary school.