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

UN Fears Rights Violations in China-backed Projects

UNHCHR investigates link between financing development and ignoring safeguards for human rights More

Boko Haram Violence Tests Nigerians’ Faith in Buhari

New president has promised to stem insurgency; he’s scheduled to meet with President Obama at White House July 20 More

Social Media Network Wants Privacy in User’s Hands

Encryption's popularity in messaging is exploding; now it's the foundation of a new social network 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.
Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugeesi
X
Carolyn Weaver
July 06, 2015 6:47 PM
In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Making Music, Fleeing Bombs: New Film on Sudan’s Internal Refugees

In 2012, Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka went to make a documentary among civil war refugees in Sudan’s Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains region. What he found surprised him: music was helping to save people from bombing raids by their own government. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Rice Farmers Frustrated As Drought Grips Thailand

A severe drought in Thailand is limiting the growing season of the country’s important rice crop. Farmers are blaming the government for not doing more to protect a key export. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Video

Video 'From This Day Forward' Reveals Difficult Journey of Transgender Parent

In her documentary, "From This Day Forward", filmmaker Sharon Shattuck reveals the personal journey of her transgender father, as he told his family that he always felt he was a woman inside and decided to live as one. VOA’s Penelope Poulou has more.
Video

Video Floodwaters Threaten Iconic American Home

The Farnsworth House in the Midwest State of Illinois is one of the most iconic homes in America. Thousands of tourists visit the site every year. Its location near a river inspired the design of the house, but, as VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, that very location is now threatening the existence of this National Historic Landmark.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.

VOA Blogs