“The Egyptians will hope forever.”
Director Lillie Paquette’s new documentary, We Are Egypt, takes viewers into the heart of Egyptian opposition politics in the year before the revolution that led to the resignation of dictator-president Hosni Mubarak. A thoughtful exploration of opposition in Egypt, Paquette’s passion for the project is evident from the opening voiceover. It is this passion that is both the strength and weakness of a documentary that has been praised for allowing the everyday viewer to understand how the revolution ‘happened’ and why opposition parties are still fighting.
Perhaps the most compelling testimony in the film is offered by April 6 Youth Movement activists who have been organizing inside Egypt since 2008. The interviews with these young figures will certainly resonate with the audience because the activists tend to display a melancholy sort of attitude toward their country’s future—they see that some progress has been made, but they are doubtful about whether or not they will ever be in power. It’s a sort of existential distress that has become all too familiar around the world.
Two young democracy activists in particular, Esraa Abdel Fattah and Basem Fathy, are featured prominently throughout the documentary. Esraa even talks about receiving training in the US geared at teaching opposition leaders about managing media and public perception in a democratic opposition movement. It is this US involvement, we learn, that drove Paquette to make the documentary in the first place.
Paquette had previously worked for a Washington D.C. non-profit that dealt largely in State Department funding for media and civil society development programs. This is generally the sort of information about directorial motivation that one would find in an interview about the film’s making but not in the film itself. Unfortunately, Paquette speaks about her concerns in the voiceover narrative. Her deep involvement is commendable on one hand, but on the other makes it seem like she has an agenda here that has shaped how the film was put together. It’s unfortunate that these concerns must confront viewers because Paquette has done an excellent job of talking to so many key players in the revolution and even a few in the Mubarak regime.
What We Are Egypt manages to do, with a great deal of gravity, is make us confront the ghastly way so many world leaders—President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton among them—talked about Mubarak’s regime as a strong ally and centerpiece of the Middle East while dismissing the concerns of the vast majority of Egyptian citizens. Viewers are left to wonder what price stability carries and, perhaps, whether or not they would be willing to pay that price were they Egyptian. Images of protesters on the street yelling “We are poor, but we will not be sold!” are followed by images of Mubarak with Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama.
These extremely powerful images are complemented by interviews with a wide variety of Egyptian figures, including beloved actor Omar Sharif. The interviewees speak eloquently for themselves and express a variety of viewpoints on reform in Egypt and the future of the country. Unfortunately, heavy voiceover narration between these segments once again raises the problem of a strong directorial agenda. Of course, these agenda assuredly exist in all films, and they’re not necessarily bad. But they are often expressed in more subtle ways through editing, timing and scoring. This softer, hands off approach allows us to become involved in the subject without feeling that we have been manipulated.
Though We Are Egypt has its problems, it will likely be viewed in the future as one of the most important media artifacts created in the West about the 2011 revolution. Paquette manages to cover a lot of ground both geographically and ideologically, offering viewers a primer on Egyptian politics that is generally pleasant to watch and that allows us to build relationships with many of her subjects. The film has the feel of something that will work particularly well in schools and universities, where it’s sometimes-droll voiceover style will join seamlessly with the lecture atmosphere.
The special features included on the We Are Egypt DVD are a mixed blessing. While the material provides a window into the lives of Egyptians and offers a glimpse into how the country has changed since the January 2011 revolution, the presentation of the featurettes is made clunky by the presence of Paquette offering narrative with her laptop in front of her. While viewers will certainly value her voice and insight, her continual appearance in this section is akin to an author reading aloud the parts of a book that didn’t make the editor’s cut. Polishing these featurettes as mini-documentaries might have allowed the special features the same power as the full-length film with which they are packaged.