Archive for the ‘Eric Walberg’ Category

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The Square: Documenting Egypt’s revolution

by Eric Wahlberg

The Square, a documentary about Egypt’s January 2011 uprising, provides glimpses of most of the players but gives short shrift to the Muslim Brotherhood, the main player that was then targeted by the deep state headed by the military.

The Square, the Academy Award-nominated Egyptian-American documentary film by Jehane Noujaim, depicts events in Egypt from January 2011 focusing on Tahrir Square. It is neither “Egyptian” nor “American” in any meaningful sense, as the Egyptian “government” has banned it, Noujaim’s mother is American, and she was raised more in Kuwait, has lived in Boston since 1990, and as such is far from typically American in outlook.

Furthermore, she financed and produced the film independently, raising funds from kickstarter.com, where supporters around the world can pledge funds to help finance such projects, and it premiered on Netflix, again for worldwide distribution (except, of course, Egypt). It is very much a film of the new international age, where nationalism is less and less meaningful, where forces of both repression and resistance are increasingly international.

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Given these handicaps/advantages, Noujaim has produced a remarkable documentary, which will surely stand as the most powerful and riveting expose of what lay behind the immediate upheavals that began in 2011 and which will continue into the foreseeable future in Egypt.

This is not to say that it is objective, since that is impossible anyway, as any journalism, any writing, any film inevitably reflects the standpoint of the author. So it is no surprise that the Muslim Brotherhood, though unavoidably prominent throughout the film (at least as a specter), is given short shrift. Or that the secular youth dominate the film and are portrayed as the main force and the most appealing protagonists of the revolution.

What astounds the viewer, whether secular or Islamic, is the military and police violence against the people, both Muslims and Christians. It is too easy to forget their overwhelming responsibility for the post-revolutionary violence—in league, of course, with the old guard and the openly criminal elements in Egyptian society.

By highlighting some of the worst episodes of violence in the past three years and winning prominence for her film, Noujaim has done a great service. She has made it impossible for thinking people to ignore the military’s bloody past and present actions. The film uses actual footage of security force atrocities to document the unceasing and unapologetic recourse to murder and torture by the military and police.

Interspersed with these horrible scenes are interviews with senior military figures, one of whom smugly admits that the so-called revolution was actually carried out by the military itself to prevent Mubarak from passing on the presidency to his son Jamal, and that when it is time, it will be cut short. His prophetic words were echoed by worried revolutionaries, who were constantly looking over their shoulders, expecting a coup, and in the end—unbelievably and to their shame—actually calling for one.

This plot was well-known even before the events of January–Feburary 2011. But the revolution seemed to take events out of the military’s control. Suddenly the military was faced with a mass uprising, not so easy to quell as they thought. How would it rein in these powerful forces that it had unleashed—to put the genie back in the bottle? Egyptians quickly matured politically, demanding genuine elections and, as soon became clear, an Islamic government. What was the poor military to do?

Here, The Square pleads “Not my job!” sticking to its human interest angle. Fair enough. We can fill in the blanks: in addition to its ongoing episodic violence, intended to intimidate everyone, the military hobbled Islamic activists at every step, disbanding the elected parliament and stripping the president of his powers, in hopes that they could cow them into accepting a subservient role in the new order.

When it became clear to all—Islamic groups, Christians, old guard, secuarlists—that Islamic groups were ready and able to chart a new course for Egypt based on the Quran, the military’s only weapon was … weapons. Up the violence! Kill, torture, terrorize, and then, when Egyptians of all stripes were pleading for “security”, take control. Very clever.

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This clear scenario is only hinted at by The Square. Most of the film’s protagonists spout the nonsense that the Brotherhood was in a cynical pact with the military, and the only Brotherhood actor featured in the film is Magdy Ashour, a dissident within the Brotherhood who disobeys his higher-ups defiantly at crucial moments, even disowning the Brotherhood at one point. No legitimate Brotherhood spokesman articulates the views held by most members—that the MB was pursuing a more patient, realistic, and less confrontational path to civilian democracy.

The film was originally released in January 2012 and immediately won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance film festival and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. With the July 2013 coup, Noujaim returned to Tahrir to update the film, swallowing the secularist line about “the largest demonstration in history” precipitating the coup and actually celebrating the coup (through the joy of the film’s actors — excluding Ashour). The film ends with the naive secular hero, ex-street kid Ahmed Hassan, phoning Ashour, traumatized, tortured and in prison, to wish him well and say there is nothing personal in their disagreement over the coup. Crocodile tears.

Noujaim, as channeled by Ahmed and the other main protagonist, British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdallah, while not happy with the coup in retrospect, rationalizes it as a step toward their goal of a nice, secular democratic Egypt, a lovely fantasy, which the cynical military and the Brotherhood both know to be a false goal.

The Pinochet of Egypt, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, overthrew the legitimate government headed by President Mohamed Mursi in July 2013, ordered the slaughter of thousands, and has since been promoted to Field Marshal by his quisling interim President Adly Mansour. El-Sisi has never actually commanded troops in any “war,” except the war against his own people, making the title ludicrous. Yes, Pinochet became president of Chile and continued his reign of terror for 17 years, but he was eventually arrested and is remembered now as a cruel and unjust tyrant, not Chile’s savior. Read your history, Sisi.

Noujain did not make this logical conclusion, though we, the viewers, can. Like all cultural artifacts, The Square is a product of its environment, its maker, and demands an intelligent viewing. It is to be recommended as a surprisingly honest depiction of events. The fact that it raises the ire of just about everyone shows that it is not pulling any punches. Only the secular socialists can enthusiastically commend it, but then that is Noujain’s milieu. We can at least be thankful to her for providing a precious compilation of historic footage, interspersed with “the human stories of specific individuals caught up in the revolt”, but especially for revealing the military monster eating away at the heart of the revolution.

“This film is sort of a love letter to those ideas that were put forth at the start of the revolution. Some may say that what is happening now is a tragedy, but it is still an open-ended story.” With the deletion of “some may say that,” Noujain has the pulse of Egypt’s revolution. Good luck to Noujain at the Oscars.

A version of this appeared at Crescent International

 

 

TIFF: Cultural Starwars
by Eric Walberg

The empire requires a nice juicy enemy to keep people’s minds off its own sins. During the Cold War, Hollywood responded admirably to the challenge, churning out anti-communist thrillers with Russian bad guys, most memorably during Reagan’s surreal presidency, when “Red Dawn” and “Rocky IV” reduced international politics to a comic book parody.

Given who the official enemy is these days, it is no surprise that the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), which boasts of 72 participating countries, did not include a ‘Spotlight on Iranian cinema’ this year. On the contrary, it showcased the latest serving of propaganda against Iran with the premiere of “Argo“, a docudrama depicting the escape of six US diplomats from Iran following the November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, when 52 Americans were held hostage, and Iranian student protesters dumped US diplomatic correspondence on the street in a spectacular premodern WikiLeak.

Argo” is based on then-Canadian ambassador Kenneth Taylor, who indeed hid the six Americans who showed up at the Canadian embassy during the 1979 hostage crisis and issued them fake Canadian passports. Taylor was made an Officer of the Order of Canada and awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1981 for his help.

As if scripted in Hollywood, the Friday evening TIFF premier began just hours after the announcement that Canada was closing its embassy in Tehran, adding extra spice.

Argo” was produced by George Clooney and directed by Ben Affleck, who also plays the lead role of the CIA agent Tony Mendez, posing as director of a fake Canadian science-fiction film (appropriately entitled “Argo“). Mendez convinces Iranian officials that Iran’s stark desert panoramas would make a convincing extraterrestrial terrain (the Hollywood subtext being that Islamic Iran is loony and Iranian officials are easily duped).

Clooney and Affleck are not Zionist zealots. They are even criticized for being ‘pro-Palestinian’ (though that means very little in the case of Hollywood), and both are identified with opposition to US neocon wars. So their production of this blatant propaganda potboiler is a sad commentary on just how obsessed America is with the one country to successfully stand up to it and Israel today. It’s as if a muted critique of US government crimes must be balanced by fawning displays of patriotism. Affleck even entertained US troops aboard the USS Enterprise on a USO-sponsored tour of the Persian Gulf in December 2003, despite his reservations about US warmongering (no doubt mock-firing a missile at Iran from the US naval base in Bahrain).

The CIA-cum-Hollywood producer of the movie-within-the-movie is another icon of anti-war liberals, Alan Arkin, who starred in “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966), directed by Norman Jewison, and the screen version of the satirical anti-war Catch-22 (1970). However, he also did an HBO TV movie “Doomsday Gun” (1994) about a Canadian weapons builder whom helped Israel “defend’ the Golan Heights, but then cynically decides to sell his talents to the highest bidder — Saddam Hussein, who wants to build the eponymous weapon-of-mass-deception (excuse me, ‘destruction’). Arkin plays an Israeli intelligence officer who politely changes the misguided Canadian’s mind. No doubt Bush junior saw this nuanced bit of hasbara, prompting him to invade Iraq in search of WMDs.

“Argo” was received with raves and calls for an Oscar for Arkin. His past displays of anti-war liberalism should not be a problem, given his devotion to Israel as shown in “Doomsday Gun” and now this latest sop to America’s Israel-firsters.

The timing of this screening of the fantasy Canadian embassy intrigue must have been coordinated with the real-life Canadian embassy closing. There’s no other explanation. Worthy of an Oscar in itself. In sharp contrast to the scandal at the 2009 Toronto festival. Despite Israel’s invasion of Gaza just months earlier, it featured a ‘City to city Spotlight on Tel Aviv’, funded by the Israeli Embassy and the Canada-Israel Cultural Foundation, the centre-piece of Israeli Consul Amir Gissin’s “Brand Israel” campaign. At the time, Gissin unashamedly was calling Toronto “an arena for Israel from a PR, cultural and commercial point of view”. The idea was “to promote Tel Aviv as a city of peace”, even after killing more than a thousand Gazans in Operation Cast Lead a few short months earlier.

TIFF’s cozying up to the Israeli propaganda machine blew up into a global scandal, as a spontaneous movement of protest among a few filmmakers turned into an international incident, bringing 1,500 signatures from prominent Israeli public figures and the likes of Jane Fonda, Julie Christie, Alice Walker, Naomi Klein, Guy Maddin, and Harry Belafonte to the “Toronto Declaration” criticizing Israel and TIFF. It was a huge embarrassment, a sign that Israel propaganda is becoming harder to swallow, even by devotees of Hollywood.

Since then, no more tributes to Tel Aviv. Now, to show how open-minded it is, TIFF even shows Arab films tsk-tsking Israel’s mistreatment of Palestinians, but all safely within the bounds of North American discourse on Palestine, Syria etc. This year’s include:

  • “After the Battle”, by Egyptian Yousry Nasrallah, about Mahmoud, who makes a paltry living taking tourists on horseback rides at the pyramids but was conned into participating in the “battle of the camels” during the Egyptian revolution last year. He is now unemployed and ostracized, and has a fateful encounter with a liberal rich divorcee from Zamalek.
  • “As if We Were Catching a Cobra”, by Hala Alabdalla, about the tradition of caricature drawing in Egypt and Syria, filmed before, during and after the uprisings of 2011–12.
  • “Inescapable”, by Arab-Canadian director Ruba Nadda, about a former officer in the Syrian military police who is forced to return to Damascus when his globe-trotting daughter goes missing.
  • “Fidai” and “Zabana!”, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Algeria’s independence, the former reminiscences of a combatant, the latter a biopic about the legendary freedom fighter guillotined by the French in 1956 who inspired the Battle of Algiers.
  • “The Attack”, by Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri, about a Palestinian doctor in Israel who faces discrimination and whose wife is involved in a suicide bombing.
  • “When I Saw You”, by Palestinian Annemarie Jacir, produced by Ossama Bawardi, who produced “Paradise Now“.
  • A World Not Ours”, by Mahdi Fleifel, about life in the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon.
  • “State 194″, a documentary by Dan Setton, on Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s plans for a Palestinian state, with Fayyad in attendance.
  • “Inch’ Allah”, by Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, about a Quebec doctor who works in a women’s health clinic on the Palestinian side of the barrier but resides in an apartment on the Israeli side.
  • Uprisings against Arab dictators, celebration of Algerian independence, Palestinian angst balanced by a paean to the chief Palestinian sellout.

As another sign of the times, there is now an annual Toronto Palestine Film Festival (TPFF) following TIFF at the beginning of October, where more probing films are shown and where Palestinian filmmakers invited to TIFF (this year — Jacir, Bawardi and Fleifel) can meet with local activists fighting Israeli apartheid.

This year’s line-up includes some hard-hitting documentaries:

  • The War Around Us“, by Abdallah Omeish, about the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008.
  • Road Map to Apartheid“, by Ana Nogueira.
  • This Is My Land”Hebron”, by Giulia Amati and Stephen Natanson, about Hebron, where 160,000 Palestinians are confronted by an Israeli settlement of 600 settlers, guarded by 2,000 Israeli soldiers, intent on expelling the indigenous population and occupying their homes.

If patrons of TPFF have their way, Toronto may not be Gissin’s “arena for Israeli PR” much longer.

http://ericwalberg.com/

Eric is a journalist and writer for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He specializes in Russian and Eurasian affairs. Walberg’s “Postmodern Imperialism: Geopolitics and the Great Games” can be purchased at www.claritypress.com/Walberg.html