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

Islamic State Survivor: A Yazidi Girl's Tale

Sarah Said Haydar, captured a year ago while fleeing Islamic State onslaught in northern Iraq, was so traumatized by militants, she sought to end her own life More

EU, US Applaud Kosovo Law on Special Court

Joint statement says lawmakers' decision to address allegations of war crimes 'demonstrated their commitment to the rule of law and to honor international agreements' More

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' 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.
Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Tradei
X
Robert Carmichael
August 04, 2015 3:07 PM
Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Cambodia Makes Progress Curbing Bear Trade

Cambodia’s wild bears are under unprecedented pressure. Their native forests are being cut down at record rates, and China's huge demand for traditional medicine has made them targets. But experts say Cambodia's conservation efforts are setting an example that has put it well ahead of its neighbors in protecting bears. Robert Carmichael reports for VOA from Phnom Penh.
Video

Video Growing Number of E. Jerusalem Palestinians Seek Israeli Citizenship

Most Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have long rejected the option of full Israeli citizenship, seeing it as a betrayal to their political cause - the formation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital. But as that dream remains elusive, more and more Palestinians are applying for Israeli citizenship. Zlatica Hoke reports the decision is hard for many Palestinians who say they have to be pragmatic about it.
Video

Video With No Money, More Students, African Universities Struggle

Academics from around the African continent converged in Johannesburg last week for the African Universities Summit, a chance to tackle some of the major issues facing higher education in Africa today. VOA's Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Wisconsin's Voter ID Law Still Mired In Controversy

Voter ID laws have sparked controversy across the US. More than 30 states enacted laws requiring citizens to show identification before they vote. Against fierce opposition, the state of Wisconsin recently enacted one the most restrictive voter ID laws in country. As Jeff Swicord reports, no one can predict its impact as the 2016 election nears.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Hailed as Highly Effective

At last, there's a way to end the suffering from the Ebola epidemic that has ravaged West Africa for more than a year. Researchers say the vaccine is so effective, there may never be a major outbreak of Ebola again. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs