News / Science & Technology

'Everyone's a Filmmaker in Egypt'

What role did the Internet and social media play in the Arab Spring? It depends who you ask, and where they live.

'Everyone's a Filmmaker in Egypt'
'Everyone's a Filmmaker in Egypt'

There's no telling who you might meet on the street during a revolution.

February 4, 2011.  The streets of Cairo were a tumult of anger, tear gas, fear and hope.  Documentary filmmaker Micah Garen was in the middle of it all when, unbidden, a young Egyptian woman approached, holding a sign.

"Are you a journalist?  Will you tell my story?", she asked. Garen agreed and began rolling tape. It would change both of their lives.

The woman, Shima'a Helmy, was a freelance writer and translator with a degree in bio-techology.  She never considered herself politically active, much less participated in what looked like a rebellion before.  But here she was.

"I knew about it online, but no-one knew what was going to happen," she says of the protests.  "But then I was looking at how the Tunisians were able to overthrow Ben Ali.  I was, like, 'We can do this.'  So it was me and my brother and sister and all of us coming out to the streets."

A novice protester, Helmy felt bolstered by the mass of people around her, and began to tell her story to Garen on-camera in the middle of the riots.  Very soon, however, the Egyptian police moved in, detaining both of them - and Garen's camera.

"It was one of those things where I had to take the flashcards [that record the footage] and throw them over a bridge while they were detaining us so they wouldn't have her and the footage," recounts Garen.  "It was a bonding experience between us."

From that bonding moment a documentary movie was born.  "IF" is a real-time record of the Egyptian revolution, told through the perspective of Helmy, among others. Still in production, co-producer Marie-Hélène Carleton calls it a tale in three acts: 'Revolution', 'After the Revolution', and 'What Happens Next?'

Carleton, Garen and Helmy are touring the U.S., talking about the film and the uncertainty of the situation in Egypt. Their travels have brought them to Camden, Maine; a salty resort-town between the rugged mountains and the ocean, and host of the annual "PopTech" conference.

"Technology is transformative," says a slim young man who identifies himself as "Marc", one of the hundreds of conference attendees.  That social media has changed things is not a topic of debate here; how it has very much is.

One participant, the impish Thomas Thwaites, describes his journey to build a toaster from scratch - literally, even boiling down the material needed to make the fuel to make the material that makes the toaster - and how it relates to our online lives. Another speaker, Saudi scholar Hayat Sindi, eagerly describes how the web will be the tool to bring science, education and hope, to a new generation of unemployed Arabs.

But it's not all techno-love in Camden. No less a figure than Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson kicked off the conference with brisk cold water to the face: "This so-called social media has transformed our democratic institutions," cautioned the white-haired Grimmson. "The White House or the presidency and the cabinet in my country has become almost a sideshow."  Ouch.

The role of the Internet and social media in the Arab Spring has been a hot topic since Facebook began buzzing with talk of revolution in Tunisia, as it remains at PopTech. But it's still an unsettled question - not just among participants here, but even among the team behind "IF."

"In a place like Egypt, everyone is a filmmaker, everyone has a camera, everyone is communicating far more than I do," says Garen.  "The moment they shoot something, they're putting it up on Facebook, they share it with 10,000 friends.  It's an extraordinary explosion of personal freedom.  People aren't allowing to let these authoritarian regimes run their lives anymore...they're going out on the streets and saying 'This is my humanity, this is all I have.'"

Carleton echoes this thought, noting what she and others see as a connection between January's protests in Cairo and September's protests in New York City and elsewhere.  "The rise of activists who can...connect virtually online for a while to create a sense of momentum before they go out on the street and create a groundswell; it's bringing together people and ideas via social media that we see globally."

But not everyone's convinced; among them, Shima'a Helmy. "The role of the Internet and social media was over-emphasized in the media coverage, especially in the West," she says.  "They were trying to say it was a Facebook revolution, or a Twitter revolution, and that social media had a big role in it, when the fact is it didn't actually work out until we came down into the street.  We didn't have our first million person march until the Internet was cut."

October in Maine seems a long way from January 25th in Cairo.  It's cool and quiet, and the church bells sharply ring out the hours on the Camden Green just across the street from the PopTech conference. Attendees here may furiously debate exactly how the Internet is changing our socities, but nobody doubts that it is - and will continue to do so, in unexpected ways.

At a conference break, attendees flood into the cool sunlight; everyone one of them tweeting, calling, filming or in some other way documenting the event. It's technology overload...but what's notable is that people only smile when talking to others.  Handshakes, grins, and human contact still seem the rule of the day.

Which is largely how Shima'a Helmy recalls her involvement in the Egyptian revolution.

"People think that I've done something extraordinary," says Helmy on the crisp village green. "I'm trying to prove that's not so. You can't wait for the web.  You just have to get up and out and do something."

She pauses and asks herself aloud: where would I be if I hadn't walked out on the street that night and started talking to a journalist?

Probably not in cool Camden, at the side of the sea.


Doug Bernard

dbjohnson+voanews.com

Doug Bernard covers cyber-issues for VOA, focusing on Internet privacy, security and censorship circumvention. Previously he edited VOA’s “Digital Frontiers” blog, produced the “Daily Download” webcast and hosted “Talk to America”, for which he won the International Presenter of the Year award from the Association for International Broadcasting. He began his career at Michigan Public Radio, and has contributed to "The New York Times," the "Christian Science Monitor," SPIN and NPR, among others. You can follow him @dfrontiers.

You May Like

Mugabe Dismisses Male-Female Equality

'It is not possible that women can be at par with men' incoming African Union president declares on eve of summit More

Somali Terror Suspect's Light Sentence Raises Questions

Abdullahi Yusuf, 18, could have spent 15 years in prison but judge instead sentenced him to a halfway house, and a program to try to integrate him back into the community More

Video Kobani Ravaged Following Kurdish Ouster of IS Militants

Even so, hundreds of refugees sheltering in Turkey seek to return; Kurdish forces hold some back, saying fighting continues More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Productioni
X
George Putic
January 29, 2015 9:43 PM
The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Groundbreaking Hand-Painted Documentary About Van Gogh in Production

The troubled life of the famous 19th century Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh has been told through many books and films, but never in the way a group of filmmakers now intends to do. "Loving Vincent " will be the first ever feature-length film made of animated hand-painted images, done in the style of the late artist. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Rock-Consuming Organisms Alter Views of Life Processes

Scientists thought they knew much about how life works, until a discovery more than two decades ago challenged conventional beliefs. Scientists found that there are organisms that breathe rocks. And it is only recently that the scientific community is accepting that there are organisms that could get energy out of rocks. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports.
Video

Video Paris Attacks Highlight Global Weapons Black Market

As law enforcement officials piece together how the Paris and Belgian terror cells carried out their recent attacks, questions are being asked about how they obtained military grade assault weapons - which are illegal in the European Union. As VOA's Jeff Swicord reports, experts say there is a very active worldwide black market for these weapons, and criminals and terrorists are buying.
Video

Video Activists Accuse China of Targeting Religious Freedom

The U.S.-based Chinese religious rights group ChinaAid says 2014 was the worst year for religious freedom in China since the end of the Cultural Revolution. As Ye Fan reports, activists say Beijing has been tightening religious controls ever since Chinese leader Xi Jinping came to office. Hu Wei narrates.
Video

Video Super Bowl Ads Compete for Eyes on TV, Web

Super Bowl Sunday (Feb. 1) is about more than just the NFL's American football championship and big parties to watch the game. Viewers also tune in for the world famous commercials that send Facebook and Twitter abuzz. Daniela Schrier reports on the social media rewards for America’s priciest advertising.
Video

Video Theologians Cast Doubt on Morality of Drone Strikes

In 2006, stirred by photos of U.S. soldiers mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a group of American faith leaders and academics launched the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. It played an important role in getting Congress to investigate, and the president to ban, torture. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Freedom on Decline Worldwide, Report Says

The state of global freedom declined for the ninth consecutive year in 2014, according to global watchdog Freedom House's annual report released Wednesday. VOA's William Gallo has more.
Video

Video MRI Seems to Help Diagnose Prostate Cancer, Preliminary Study Shows

Just as with mammography used to detect breast cancer, there's a lot of controversy about tests used to diagnose prostate cancer. Fortunately, a new study shows doctors may now have a more reliable way to diagnose prostate cancer for high risk patients. More from VOA's Carol Pearson.
Video

Video Smartphones About to Make Leap, Carry Basic Senses

Long-distance communication contains mostly sounds and pictures - for now. But scientists in Britain say they are close to creating additions for our smartphones that will make it possible to send taste, smell and even a basic touch. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Former Sudan 'Lost Boy' Becomes Chess Master in NYC

In the mid-1980’s, thousands of Sudanese boys escaped the country's civil war by walking for weeks, then months and finally for more than a year, up to 1,500 kilometers across three countries. The so-called Lost Boys of the Sudan had little time for games. But one of them later mastered the game of chess, and now teaches it to children in the New York area. VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York has his story.
Video

Video NASA Monitors Earth’s Vital Signs From Space

The U.S. space agency, NASA, is wrapping up its busiest 12-month period in more than a decade, with three missions launched in 2014 and two this month, one in early January and the fifth scheduled for January 29. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the instruments being lifted into orbit are focused on Earth’s vital life support systems and how they are responding to a warmer planet.
Video

Video Crowded Republican Presidential Field Off to Early Start for 2016

It seems early, but the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign is already heating up. Though no one has officially announced a candidacy, several potential Republican contenders have been busy speaking to conservative groups about making a White House run next year. Many of the possible contenders are critical of the Obama administration’s foreign policy record. VOA national correspondent Jim Malone reports.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid