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'
TEXT SIZE - +
Doug Bernard

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.

You May Like

Multimedia Anti-Keystone XL Protests Continue

Demonstrators are worried about pipeline's effect on climate change, their traditional way of life, health and safety More

Thailand's Political Power Struggle Continues

Court gave Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra until May 2 to prepare her defense over abuse of power charges but uncertainty remains over election timing More

Malaysia Plane Search Tests Limits of Ocean Mapping Technology

Expert tells VOA existing equipment’s maximum operating depth is around 6 kilometers as operation continues on ocean bed for any trace of MH370 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.
Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Messagei
X
Penelope Poulou
April 22, 2014 5:53 PM
Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pet Kangaroo Helps Spread Environmental Message

Children’s author Julia Heckathorn travels the world to learn about different ecosystems and endangered animals. She pours her knowledge into children’s books, hoping the next generation will right the environmental wrongs of our times. As in many children's books, the main character in Heckathorn's stories is an animal. Unlike those other characters, though, this one is real - a kangaroo, that lives in the author’s backyard. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Pro-Russian Separatists Plan 'Federalization Referendum' in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine say they plan to move forward next month with a referendum vote for greater autonomy, despite the Geneva agreement reached with Russia, the U.S. and Ukraine to end the political conflict. VOA's Brian Padden reports from the city of Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine.
Video

Video Pope Francis Hopes Dual Canonizations Will Reconcile Church

On April 27, two popes - John the XXIII and John Paul II - will be made saints in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Square. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky says the dual canonization is part of the current pope’s program to reconcile liberals and conservatives in the Roman Catholic Church.
Video

Video In Capturing Nature's Majesty, Film Makes Case for Its Survival

French filmmaker Luc Jacquet won worldwide acclaim for his 2005 Academy Award-winning documentary "March of the Penguins". Now Jacquet is back with a new film that takes movie-goers deep into the heart of a tropical rainforest - not only to celebrate its grandeur, but to make the case for its survival. VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Boston Marathon Bittersweet for Many Runners

Monday's running of the Boston Marathon was bittersweet for many of the 36,000 participants as they finished the run that was interrupted by a double bombing last year. Many gathered along the route paid respect to the four people killed as a result of two bombings near the finish line. VOA's Carolyn Presutti returned to Boston this year to follow two runners, forever changed because of the crimes.
Video

Video International Students Learn Film Production in World's Movie Capital

Hollywood - which is part of Los Angeles - is the movie capital of the world, and many aspiring filmmakers go there in hopes of breaking into the movie business. Mike O'Sullivan reports that regional universities are also a magnet for students who hope to become producers or directors.
Video

Video Pacific Rim Trade Deal Proves Elusive

With the U.S.-led war in Iraq ended and American military involvement in Afghanistan winding down, President Barack Obama has sought to pivot the country's foreign policy focus towards Asia. One aspect of that pivot is the negotiation of a free-trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations. But as Obama leaves this week on a trip to four Asian countries he has found it very difficult to complete the trade pact. VOA's Ken Bredemeier has more from Washington.
Video

Video Autistic Adults Face Housing, Job Challenges

Many parents of children with disabilities fear for the future of their adult child. It can be difficult to find services to help adults with disabilities - physical, mental or emotional - find work or live on their own. The mother of an autistic boy set up a foundation to advocate for the estimated 1.2 million American adults with autism, a developmental disorder that causes communication difficulties and often social difficulties. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.
AppleAndroid