Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1279, (21 - 27 January 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Revolution in thought

Nourhan Tewfik finds out about one of the more remarkable conjunctions of art and politics in post-2011 Egypt

Revolution in thought
Revolution in thought
Al-Ahram Weekly

“Collect all the work and any information from him, as we need to get him out on the street.”

So says the worker’s boss in the opening scenes of Out on the Street (Bara Fil Sharea), a hybrid documentary by filmmakers Jasmina Metwali and Philip Rizk, which was triggered by the real-life story of the privatisation of one of Egypt’s factories.

Bara Fel Sharea is a synonym for the expression “the pink slip” and has come to be a metonymy for the brutal layoff of workers. In Egypt as elsewhere, many members of the working class, thanks to capitalism and its offshoot of aggressive privatisation, continue to be forced out of the workplace, and on the street, as their factories/companies are sold and brought down to the ground; their ruins swiftly replaced by real estate projects that bring their owners mammoth profits. It is a global struggle in which members of the working class suffer economic exploitation, battling with systemic corruption on a daily basis.

It is the poignant story that Metwali and Rizk have told in Out on the Street, featuring 10 workers from a working-class neighbourhood who for months came to a rooftop studio in downtown Cairo to participate in an acting workshop, sharing their day-to-day struggles, from an array of discriminations and exploitations experienced within the confines of the workplace, to humanity-stripping incidents experienced outside it.

Out on the Street especially focuses on four protagonists: Ahmed Ruba, Am Said, Khalaf, and 17-year-old Mohamed.

Metwali and Rizk employ a bold triad of storytelling: footage from an acting workshop, a final theatrical reenactment in which the workers present a fictionalised performance based on the earlier rehearsals, and a mobile phone video showing a factory in ruins, are brilliantly juxtaposed. This is facilitated by the film following the basic storyline of a privatised company whose workers are put out on the street.

By engaging a theatrical performance, diluting the border between fact and fiction and employing the aforementioned amalgam of footage, Out to the Street seeks to provide us with a thus-far missing genealogy of how the story that surrounds a company’s privatisation comes about: in the opening scenes, we see snippets of an amateur video showing a factory in ruins. It is in both the workshop and performance that we are offered a story as to how this state of destruction might have come about, and how the workers’ might have reacted to it.  

The film was produced by Mustafa Youssef from Seen Films, a Cairo-based film house founded in 2011 which operates with the slogan “Necessary cinema,” and aspires to work for “the full representation, self-realisation, and positive engagement of all marginalised groups — whether due to gender, urban centrism, economic restriction, or religion,” as is mentioned on its web site.

Out on the Street made its Egypt premiere at art house cinema Zawya on 10 January in the presence of the filmmakers, and it was screened for a week starting on Wednesday 13 January, also at Zawya.

Metwali took the time to discuss the film, its varied inspirations and its fascinating particulars.



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The story began in 2011 when, as part of their work with the Mosireen video collective, Metwali and Rizk were documenting strikes and other manifestations of social struggle, and posting short videos online.

At the time, there was an “urgency to react. It was also a time to do something with an archive that was not ours, but the people’s. We collected the archive during the 18 days from people who came to the media tent in the square and would leave their material from cameras, films and so on,” Metwali explains.

After the 18 days, “It was important to carry on. Philip and I wanted to focus on strikes, struggles, movements and sit-ins that were organised outside Tahrir Square, which was the spot mostly televised and recognised as the revolutionary space. And we found a lot of other Tahrirs happening outside, on the outskirts of Cairo, but also further,” Metwali adds.

But soon, Metwali came face to face with the limitations of filming and posting videos online. The official and vigilante re-appropriation of what public space had been reclaimed by the people after 25 January 2011 meant that filming on the street was progressively riskier and more difficult. Moreover, Metwali felt that the edited videos “made it seem as if you were going into the same workspace and filming the same people. The people are different, the tragedies and the spaces are different, but you’re retelling the same story.”

As such, there was an urgency to find other ways to discourse about these struggles. “Outside of the factory spaces, you can create other factories,” Metwali says. “Fictive spaces that are not made to resemble something but are rather intended to provoke an entire experience. You can do that in art. You can imagine things and spaces.”

Dwindling YouTube views of the videos suggested that “people were exhausted of talking to cameras, journalists and filmmakers, because the results were not there. I think this frustration reflected on us — on our frustration with not being able to translate that into some form of action or change, which was our aim with Mosireen.” And that is how, with Rizk, she came “to think of a different way of doing things.”



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“Philip and I watched Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout Va bien. In the film, the workers kidnap the owner and they hold him hostage in his own factory. There’s something very humourous about the acting and staging. And there’s one scene where you see the building from outside, as if the factory is dismantled from its front wall so you can see all the different compartments. The owner is in one compartment and there are people running in the other. It was very theatrical and it made us think of theatre,” Metwali says, explaining one of the early inspirations for Out on the Street.  

Metwali and Rizk would continue to watch films centred on factory spaces, privatisation and its impact on workers, in the process looking closely at the radical cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, the plays of Brecht, Grotowski and Boal and the Third Cinema movement. The filmmakers would integrate some of the aforementioned theatre inspirations into Out on the Street, but without trying to “mimic any such method”.

But the interest in employing a theatrical performance to allow workers to narrate their own stories was also inspired by Metwali’s own father, the late director, actor, theatre critic and professor Hanaa Abdel-Fattah, who besides leading an inspiring vocation in theatre, had a passion for working with amateurs.

Abdel-Fattah had worked with amateur actors as early as the late 1960s. During his leadership of the Cultural Palace in Hurghada (which he was appointed to in 1968), he staged a theatrical performance based on Yusuf Idris’s Cotton King, with a group of peasants.

“My father was not an activist, he was not doing [such art] for political reasons in that strict way of understanding. I think he was unintentionally working politically and not working on a political piece, which is how I think filmmakers should work,” Metwali says.

Metwali had hoped her father could direct Out on the Street’s theatrical performance — except that he passed away on 19 October 2012, before the film’s production phase commenced.

“I was interested to see how, as a theatre maker with decades of experience in theatre, he would revisit the work with amateur actors which he started in the 1960s. I was also interested to see how he would do so at the age of 66, when he was a completely different person because of experiences he had encountered in theatre, and after having travelled to Poland. I was interested in what would come out of that, and the kind of risks he would take with me on board.”

While Abdel-Fattah would have approached the project differently, some of the film’s elements were definitely “inspired by how I saw my father’s work”, however, Metwali says.



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In February 2011, and in the context of their work with Mosireen, Metwali and Rizk were informed about an occupation carried out by workers in a factory located in Cairo’s southern suburbs which they were asked to film. Metwali and Rizk would release a video about the strike, and would remain in touch with these workers for the next 18 months. During that period, the filmmakers heard stories of workers unlawfully laid off, their company brought down to rubble. In weekly meetings with Metwali and Rizk, the workers would provide evidence for their factory’s illegal destruction.

The filmmakers were also inspired by the workers who had audaciously taken the company owners who privatised the factory and dismantled it to court in an attempt to stop the building’s destruction, and prevent the owners from proceeding with their investment plans.  

However, Metwali and Rizk soon recognised “the difficulty [that could have resulted from working] with workers who are hands on a case”, because “to take that and put it through the process of dramatisation is tricky,” she explains.

The filmmakers proceeded to fetch other potential participants, adamant to recruit members of the working class in general and not factory workers per se.

“The problem in Egypt is that workers leading informal jobs are not considered workers, and do not have representatives. We argue against that because for us they all come from the working class,” Metwali explains.

Over the following months, the filmmakers would find a group of workers from the work-class neighbourhood of Helwan who were interested in participating in the film project.  

The Swedish Cairo-based theatre trainer Jakob Lindfors, who does theatre with non-actors in different communities in Egypt, Sudan and Syria, gave the participants an acting workshop which lasted until end of January 2014, in which they were taught the basics of acting and personification.

“We had a month and a half of game playing to disconnect workers from their daily routine, and make them enjoy the process, as well as improvisation and a lot of discussions around the issue,” Metwali says.

From discussing “the effects of privatisation, and imagining if the factory can be run by another person to thinking what the story could be like,” the filmmakers and workers were collectively “imagining the film’s infrastructure.”

During this process of brainstorming, Metwali and Rizk were interested in allowing stories to unfold as they were being told, and not to impose preconceived, scripted stories.

The Brazilian theatre director and writer Augusto Boal was at the back of their minds. “Boal would travel around Latin America and hold workshops with non-actors in villages. He wrote a book called Theatre of the Oppressed, where he has a very clear methodology of how to work with people, but it focuses on how to ‘empower’ them,” Metwali says.

“The issue we had with this kind of approach of ‘empowering’ people is that you’re coming from above and telling people this is what will empower you, which makes [the relationship] already hierarchal. This is not to say we believe in a horizontal system because at the end of the day [the filmmakers] are the ones who edit and decide what the final piece will look like,” she adds.

As such, Metwali and Rizk decided to use a basic storyline inspired by the real events that surrounded a factory’s privatisation, and allow the workers to build on it by sharing their own improvisations of real-life stories. Between February and April 2014, the filmmakers assigned roles for the performance, working with ten of the original participants.

“In this film, I see that Philip and I were facilitators. We weren’t there to tell the workers how to do things but only to provoke certain moments and emotions. It was our responsibility to recognise what they’re good at,” she says.  

But giving the workers free reign meant that some participants adjusted to the imaginary fictive space more adeptly than others, as was the case with the worker who played the role of the factory’s boss.

“He stole the moment. He became the one in charge, in terms of acting, provoking the scene and conversation. He had so much to say and offer in these terms,” Metwali explains.

“In one scene, he uses a real-life anecdote to deliver a boss-goes-crazy scene. When the factory is vacant, he goes around shouting ‘I’m the boss’ though there’s no one around. He imagines a security guard is there, and begins to boss him around, before he murmurs an echo to confirm that no one is there, thus shifting between the reality of an empty factory and his own imagination.”



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Besides the amalgam of footage and improvised script, Out on the Street also integrates a filmic style that boldly probes the documentary form, employing a free approach to the genre.

“Filmmaker Louly Seif, whom we worked with on the editing, inspired us a lot. To her all films are a work of fiction,” Metwali explains. “It’s refreshing and liberating to think that there’s something happening in a documentary which when it’s edited and projected on a wall turns it into a work of fiction.”

In one scene in Out on the Street, a worker narrates a real-life incident of when he was stopped by the police on the street and arrested for a whole day. The worker delivers the story in voice-over mode, as other workshop participants act it out concurrently.

By following such a filmic style, Metwali and Rizk wanted to “dilute the broders that exist between a conversation about something and the actual enactment. So that as a viewer, you stop being able to tell whether the scene is from the enactment or not.”

The same scene is visualised again in a different format, as part of the final enactment, except that the workers now come off as more serious.

“The second time this scene is performed, it’s no longer about the story that inspired it in the beginning, but rather about the experience of the moment. And that experience of the moment becomes an event on its own,” Metwali clarifies. This, she adds, is what constitutes an enactment. “It’s when you lose the connection with the story, and when you forget that you’re acting or in our case, re-enacting.”

Moreover, the camera takes in more than one perspective as the film unfolds. In one scene, for example, we can see Metwali behind the camera, filming the rehearsals.

“This is where our work comes in, in that we wanted to show different perspectives: the perspective of the participant, the observer, etc. and to also show the audience the infrastructure,” Metwali says.

Accordingly, the collaborative nature of the film is not realised through “some super-imposed methodology that aims to create a horizontal collective-like experience or work flow” but rather through “the elements of such an infrastructure.”

Soon after Metwali and Rizk were done with the filming and had all the material they would need, they sat down with Louly Seif and the three of them commenced editing different sequences.

“They tell you that when you film, you’re supposed to be editing in your head. So that when you’re filming fiction, you’re following a script. In documentary, it’s more like you’re following a story that takes you somewhere. In Out on the Street, you have a bit of both,” Metwali explains.

Out on the Street premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2015, and made its Arab world premiere in November 2015 when it screened within the official selection of the 26th edition of the Carthage Film Festival in Tunisia.

It won the Best Feature Film Award at the 5th Latin-Arab International Film Festival (Festival Internacional De Cine Latino Árabe) in Buenos Aires.

“Sometimes when you take risks and they work, you feel that it’s worth trying to do things differently. We worked on that film for a very long time. We didn’t know how it was going to end up, but still went on with it because it was so captivating.

“I would like to work on other projects in a similar way not by trying to mimic what was done before because you can’t re-enact that… The IDEA is to open yourself up to ways which might be challenging at first. But you must believe in your own gut feeling [and trust that the different elements will eventually fall into place. You must have a direction towards some kind of story. You must know where you’re going with your story,” she says.

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