Watching Mai Iskander’s film Words of Witness as the reports filtered in of the Egyptian presidential election results was somewhat surreal, a word the film’s Heba and her family also find descriptive of the situation in their homeland as the initial joy of Mubarak’s resignation becomes the much longer struggle to build democracy – or perhaps to continue wresting democracy from the hands of the regime.
Words of Witness begins with the wonderful days of the encampment in Tahrir and takes us up to the first election held in the new Egypt. Mai, a cinematographer and filmmaker who has family in Egypt, landed in Cairo just before Mubarak was driven from office. She began filming a young reporter, Heba Afify – a 22 year old woman just starting her career at the English edition of the independent Al Masry Al Youm. Those of you who followed my coverage of the Arab Spring will remember Al Masry since it was almost always the most reliable and timely source from the streets of Cairo. Now Mai’s film takes us into the streets with Heba as she gathered the news we went on to read so eagerly when it was published.
What is particularly wonderful about Words of Witness is the way Mai has so skillfully blended Heba’s work with a very personal view of her family life. We see not only the young talented reporter but also her mother who worries so about her young daughter at the same time she takes such pride in her. We also get to see the shifting views of her family as the situation in Egypt changes from jubilation and belief in the military to dismay and disillusionment – but also determination. At one point when they are discussing recent events, Heba is asked what is the worst case scenario and she says:
The worst case scenario is we won’t go back to the way it was, but we won’t finish the job.
Sadly it seems tonight that the job is not completed – while election results seems to point to a win by the Muslim Brotherhood presidential candidate, Morsi over the Mubarak era PM Shafiq, the army announced changes to the constitution immediately after polls closed which are close to a military takeover of all real power – and no one knows what will happen next. The speaker of the Parliament – apparently dissolved by the regime controlled court has vowed to continue to meet and the activists of January 25 have announced new demonstrations for the end of this month.
We will be reading Heba’s reporting as the situation evolves – and we’ll have a much clearer and more personal view of Heba and her young colleagues in democracy thanks to this superb film.
The film itself is so well crafted. Iskander’s training in cinematography shines through the visuals while her openness allows her subjects’ own viewpoints to take center stage. We never feel a story is imposed — instead she allows it to evolve organically, respecting both her subjects and her audience. And of all the footage I’ve watched from Tahrir, this is the first that really takes us into the streets from an Egyptian perspective.
Mai encourages us too to go into the streets of activism, inspired by Heba, as she writes in her Director’s statement:
The Revolution opened a new world of activity, imagination and possibility in Egypt. And despite the cultural, linguistic and societal differences and miles that separate Egypt and the Untied States, there is at least one truth in organizing: people know when there is no struggle, there is no progress. So, whether the rallying cry is “Out with Mubarak” or “We are the 99 percent,” people don’t need to read headlines or stare at bar graphs to know that the first step in making the country better for themselves, is to “lead themselves.”
And this is the story that Heba and her colleagues will continue writing.
I am so grateful to Mai Iskander for her “writing” of this story in Words of Witness and I am so very glad we have a chance to talk with her tonight.