Natalie Gravenor | Wednesday October 8th, 2014
The 2011 Egyptian Revolution has generated terabytes of still and moving images. They were disseminated seconds after their creation through social media. Practically overnight, cellphones, Twitter and Facebook shattered the carefully controlled image production by state-run media. The autocratic government of Hosni Mubarak relied heavily on print media and television to lull Egyptians into passive acceptance. Newspapers and current affairs TV recycled the same images of economic success and secular social conformity (showing hijab-wearing women was taboo). Photoshopping out Mubarek’s wrinkles and gray hairs was the only trace of passing time. This anecdote from the analogue age is a pivotal moment in Johanna Domke’s and Marouan Omara’s documentary CROP. As other films such as “The Square”, CROP was inspired by Tahrir and its aftermath. However, Domke and Omara don’t reproduce the iconic images but adopt a radically different approach to exploring the role of media during the ensuing Arab Spring.
Out of 19 interviews with photojournalists and other media professionals, Domke and Omara distilled an offscreen commentary, recited by actor Hany Elmetenawy. The narration is generally seamless – sharp sound edits indicating different sources are audible in the beginning – telling postwar Egyptian history through the prism of individual leaders’ image politics. The first president of republican Egypt, Gamal Abdel Nasser, is acknowledged as a charismatic figure who was able to connect with his people, irrespective of his controversial (at least in the West) policies. Nasser’s successor Anwar as-Sadat, by contrast, comes across as insecure and insincere, compensating these deficits with military pomp and circumstance and reliance on ritual. Sadat’s diplomatic outreach towards Israel is seen less as a peacemaking breakthrough than compliance with the U.S. which precipitated his assassination by Muslim radicals in 1981. Hosni Mubarek, who then ruled Egypt for three decades prior to the Egyptian Revolution, is depicted as corrupt and out of touch, and his misguided efforts to use the media to claim otherwise would be comic if they hadn’t caused so much damage. The general historical overview is interlaced with the individual story of one photojournalist who got a job at Egypt’s largest state-run newspaper, Al-Ahram (Arabic for the Pyramids), following in his father’s footsteps. The photographer puts his own professional experiences with censorship and image manipulation into a larger contextual framework. It is footage shot at the Al-Ahram building that comprises the film’s visual layer, showing photo archivists, printers and newspaper delivery staff at work, along with sliding elevator doors and different receptionists on each floor as recurring visual motifs; no photographs, stock footage or talking heads in sight. The melancholy aural track describes the transition to the digital age, culminating in a story about how the hospitalized and incapacitated press photographer misses the revolution while a fellow patient spreads his iPhone videos of Tahrir Square with the swipe of his touchscreen. The visuals, however, remain firmly focused on the analogue realm. This image-sound disjunction allows the viewer to develop own thoughts and interpretations.
CROP belongs to a documentary practice that eschews the interview and archival photographs or moving images as signifiers of reality or visual evidence. Instead, the filmmakers work with footage of places and processes associated with the films’ topics and ideas. Notable documentaries in this vein: “The Day” by Uli M. Schüppel which re-creates the last days of 10 ordinary people through off-camera descriptions by relatives or loved ones combined with images of the places of death such as hospital rooms, the dangerous traffic around Alexanderplatz or a clearing in the woods; LAUFHAUS (Cathouse) by Stefanie Gaus, a meditation about sex work shot in empty brothel rooms; Carolin Schmitz’ “Portraits of German Alcoholics” which shows dreary factories, offices and apartments as environments in which substance abuse takes place rather than exposing the protagonists’ faces to the camera; Anja Salomonowitz’ stylized use of space and performance in“It Happened Shortly Before”, which explores immigration, class and gender through monologues (based upon research interviews) recited in typical locations, though not by the words’ originators, but by different people who also have a connection to the topic. It would seem that the spatial documentary approach is particularly suitable for “difficult” subject matter (sex, drugs, death). But films such as “Beyond Metabolism” (Stefanie Gaus with Volker Sattel) and “Provenance by Amie Siegel also use places and objects to explore architecture and its impact on historical events and utopian living ideas (in “Beyond Metabolism”) or commodification processes in the art world (“Provenance”). As with all documentary styles, the spatial approach can become hackneyed if used only as an empty formal gesture. But the most successful examples use the onscreen negotiation of space to open space for the viewers to experience and reflect the issues at hand.