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Near Egypt's Tahrir Square, a filmmaker looks for answers

December 17, 2011 |  6:30 am


It’s just after 7 p.m. on Friday night, and protesters and the Egyptian army are engaged in a violent confrontation in front of the Egyptian Cabinet building near Tahrir Square. On his narrow downtown Cairo balcony about 10 blocks away, Karim El Hakim, a U.S.-raised, Egypt-dwelling filmmaker, is shaking his head.

"It's the same playbook as November," he says, alluding to protests three weeks ago that escalated into street violence and claimed the lives of more than 40 Egyptians. "The army wants to divide and conquer."

An editor on the 2004 DGA-nominated documentary "Control Room," El Hakim says he knows first-hand how brutal things can get. He was arrested last Jan. 25, the first night of massive protests that would eventually topple Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Like many other protesters, El Hakim, 42, says he was beaten by dozens of men with rubber truncheons before being thrown inside a police truck that would take him to a desert holding cell.

But the arrest came with a silver lining: When he was released the next morning, he had an idea for a film. He would make a documentary about the revolution that would tell of his own experiences as events unfolded. He and his filmmaking partner, Omar Shargawi, would direct, and they and their friends and families would star in the movie.

"As I rode home, I knew that we didn't have to look far for the characters," El Hakim recalls. "We were the characters."

The resulting movie, titled "1/2 Revolution," will make its North American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next month. In it, one sees the revolution unfold through the eyes of El Hakim and a small circle of Egyptians, half-Egyptians and expats. There's his friend Phillippe, a Lebanese filmmaker; Shargawi, a Danish-Palestinian who moved to Egypt a few years ago; El Hakim's elderly father, Omar, who has lived in Cairo his whole life; and El Hakim's wife, Samaher, a Palestinian filmmaker, among others.

The movie follows them last winter in the charged atmosphere of the streets and in El Hakim's high-ceilinged apartment, where they smoke and discuss the nerve-fraying events around them.

It's a hybrid form, in which the filmmakers are at once objective observers of a larger reality and subjective stars of their own reality. "It would be,” El Hakim said, “like if the people in the 'Big Brother' house filmed themselves.”

"1/2 Revolution" is part of a larger group of nonfiction films that grew out of footage shot during the revolution and is now beginning to hit the international circuit. Other examples include "Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician," a triptych of shorter films about the revolution which played the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. They comprise an unusual group, in which footage shot on handheld cameras  blurs the line between verite diaries and documentaries.

Born in the U.S. and raised in Boston by his Swedish mother, El Hakim, whose soft-spoken manner belies the fierceness of his political opinions, had been working as a filmmaker in Los Angeles for much of the 1990s. Then Sept. 11 happened, and he realized that the situation could get tricky for someone with his background. He decided to use the attacks as an opportunity to find his Egyptian roots. He moved to Cairo and has lived here ever since. (He also met his wife in the city; the couple now has a 2-year-old son.)

El Hakim's documentary follows the revolution chronologically, from the optimism of the early days to the growing sense of dread as the brutality intensifies. Indeed, several moments echo a horror movie as the group, with violence raging on the streets below, anxiously turns out the lights in their apartment hoping darker forces don't find them.

"There were days we didn't go out because you could see pro-Mubarak goons waving flags and carrying machetes," El Hakim says. "It was right there," he adds, pointing to a spot just below his third-floor apartment where groups of men are, on this night, drinking coffee and smoking sheesha. "And there," gesturing to a spot equally close.

The narrative of "1/2 Revolution" ends in early February, when El Hakim decides to take his family to Europe for several months because of the escalating violence. A postscript offers details about Mubarak's departure in March.

Egypt dropped off some Americans’ radars when the longtime leader stepped down and the army took control of the country in an interim arrangement. But many protesters, such as those in front of the Cabinet on this night, remain disenchanted by the army's ruling presence and are demanding that the military immediately turn control of the country over to a civilian government.

Meanwhile, parliamentary elections began last month, with a new round taking place over the last few days. Thus far, the more moderate Islamist party Muslim Brotherhood and the harder-line Salafis have taken about 70% of the vote. There have also been reports of intimidation at the polls.

Filmmakers such as El Hakim say that the unrest has created an opportunity as the international community and the U.S. starts to once again pay more attention to Egypt. "A movie like '1/2 Revolution' is my weapon in the outside world," he said.

But the violence has also led to some difficult circumstances for filmmakers, who continue to take cameras into the streets. "At the very beginning, when we first started shooting the documentary, the camera was a good cover, because they didn't want to go after people they perceived as foreigners or foreign journalists. But now they're actively targeting filmmakers and activists."

He notes a protester blogger who has recently disappeared, as well as "Control Room" director Jehane Noujaim, who was jailed for 36 hours last month while shooting footage in Tahrir Square during the earlier wave of protests.

El Hakim has now stepped out with his father to get a beer. As he walks, the director points out ill-advised streets. A tank is probably waiting up one block, he says, because that's where the Ministry of the Interior sits. Another street spills directly into the Molotov fight in front of the Cabinet building.

But on the streets he's walking, people are drinking coffee and training their eyes on Egyptian Al Jazaeera, the recently-raided station that is playing on several large televisions mounted outside stores. "This is mostly a pro-revolution crowd," El Hakim says, then pauses. "The army thinks it can hit reset. But it can't.” He adds, “People have changed. It's like they've had a new kind of software uploaded to their brain."


Egypt: First the government, next the arts?

Islamists parties' electoral success in Egypt has Copts worried

One killed in clash between Egypt protesters and military police

-- Steven Zeitchik in Cairo


Photo: Karim El Hakim in "1/2 Revolution." Credit: Nordisk Films