By Sherif Awad
A scene from Crop taken at al-Ahram building in downtown Cairo
The Egyptian revolution in January 25 mystified numerous artists and filmmakers in Egypt and beyond. Since its first spark in 2011 until today, we were exposed to many features and documentaries that looked towards the revolution and its aftermath from different angles. The latest documentary comes from two collaborating artists, the Danish Johanna Domke and the Egyptian Marouan Omara. Domke is a visual artist who was born in 1978. She 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 carried out a number of collaborative projects and participated in artist in residencies at Platform, Istanbul. Omara who was born in 1987, went to study 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 level. He is currently preparing his first feature film “Repeated Stopping” which will be produced in the beginning of 2014.
In Crop, the two 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. Instead of showing footage from the revolution, they decided to shot their film entirely in Egypt´s oldest and most influential state newspaper al-Ahram. Throughout the building – from the top-level executive office towards the smallest worker – we follow the narration of an Egyptian hypothetical photojournalist who missed the revolution due to a hospital stay. After resuming his work in the newspaper, his life seems not quite the same. His voice gives a personal reflection to the media ploys of the old regime. Crop was screened in several film festivals around the world including International Film Festival Rotterdam, festival del cinema africano d’asia e america latina in Milano and Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan. Co-director Johanna Domke answered these questions about her experience shooting the film in al-Ahram and her collaboration with Marouan Omara.
Johanna Domke & Marouan Omara at Goethe Film Week
AWAD: How was the idea of this documentary conceived?
DOMKE: 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. Both of us had never 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 of 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 perception 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. In a very early stage, we decided not to use any images or people to which the narrator refers to create a distance to them and intended to make apparent how powerful the impact of an image is. These images are actually present in our memory like a blue print. While we hear about Sadat´s appearance as a leader, we don´t need to see him standing in his uniform as we can remember that. Or in the case we have never seen a picture of Sadat we can actually imagine. When talking about Egypt, we have an image in mind that probably resembles the picture that comes up, when you visit the website of the magazine Egypt Today www.EgyptToday.com though we probably know, that this place does not exist. The interesting question is though, who actually constructed these images and what do they serve apart from being a fantasy? Needless to talk about the images of the revolution. Everyone has seen countless amounts of images and videos in the media or over Facebook. In a film concerning the images about the revolution, why would we need to show it again? We wanted to draw attention to an internal change, that has been going on in relation to images: the shift from an highly idealized representation of the nation to a national image, that the people of this country actually take part in "by whether being in it, or making it" - as it 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 in the run of the narrative. In a way you can watch the film in three different ways: whether you listen, you watch or you imagine.
AWAD: 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?
DOMKE: 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 to us, that this immense building is the big machinery that had been so actively defining the images that we were talking about throughout history. At the same time it is a wonderful representation of society itself, presenting it from top to down, from the high rank offices to the smallest workers, displaying all sorts of hierarchies and powers structures. The narration is based on the many interviews we carried out with photojournalists and the narrator is a fictitious character but it gives voice to the many stories we heard. In this way it is both true and fictive. This character, who´s "who´s 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 present in everybody we come to meet.
AWAD: 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 buildings?
DOMKE: Until now the film was only shown in Cairo during the Goethe Institute Film week and on smaller occasions during talks we gave in institutions like Townhouse. There have been no incidents from an official side. It was extremely difficult to get access to the al-Ahram and even more though to obtain a shooting permit. We were though lucky 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 none 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 serious! Our combination confused them and they gave us the permission, after paying quite an amount of a location fee.
AWAD: What was the feedback and comments when you screened the CROP in Rotterdam Film Festival and other festivals? Where was it screened before and After Rotterdam?
DOMKE: The reactions were very positive and the audience appreciated the alternative view on the subject very much. Our most mentionable 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.
AWAD: How was your experience shooting in Ahram?
DOMKE: Once we had the shooting permit it was easy to deal with the people in charge. They accepted to let us film in the entire building. Of course there was always a representative of the public relation department present to survey our shooting. We were generally very impressed by the people working at the al-Ahram. We had thought to get much 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 legitimateness. They were told by the PR department to look serious and efficient while working. This resulted in, that they kind of ignored us while observing us thoroughly from the wink of an eye.
AWAD: Tell us about your future projects..
DOMKE: We now plan a documentary project that will take place in Sharm El Sheik. It deals with the cultural confrontation entangled between the tourists and the Egyptians working there. We are selected to take part in the Dubai Film connection at the Dubai Film Festival in December 2013, where we will present and develop the project. It was previously shortlisted for the Robert Bosch Co-Production Award.