Another Side of the “Arab Spring”

Special Screening

The Reluctant Arab Spring

After nearly three turbulent years, the “Arab Spring” no longer tolerates simple narratives.

Starting in December 2010, millions have taken to the streets, mobilized by activists through online social networks and other means, swiftly toppling aging dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya (the latter controversially aided by NATO firepower). Protests spread throughout the Arabic-speaking region, from Mauritania on the Atlantic Ocean to the west, to Bahrain on the eastern side of the Arabian Peninsula, from Iraq in the north, to Sudan and Djibouti deep in the African continent. Anticipation grew for a democratic transformation that would match what happened in Latin America and Eastern Europe in recent decades.

However, the scene rapidly became more complex. Most notable was the gap between those who initiated the struggle against their dictators and the political groups who subsequently took the helm of power. Religious parties won the first free elections in Tunisia and Egypt, alienated activists, and seemed to be focused solely on entrenching their authority. A Common Enemy passionately documents this period of elections in Tunisia.

Further developments in Egypt continued to reflect the discontent of the Arab Spring. Generals of the Egyptian army staged a coup d’état and imprisoned the elected president. For many revolutionaries, that amounted to another hijacking of the democratic process. Others viewed the coup as a “lesser evil” necessary to get rid of greedy new rulers. Whatever the case, the clarity of vision that marked the first phase of the revolution faded away, and unity among Egyptians gave way to rifts and divisions. Crop displays how political fluctuations rocked the world of one of Egypt’s oldest and largest newspapers, Al-Ahram.

Militarization, religious tensions, and tribal rivalries fueled continued unrest. Matters were further complicated by the meddling of two super powers, the United States and Russia, together with the competing interests of regional powers including Iran, Turkey, and oil-rich Arab states. Civil protests turned into bloody conflicts in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and, most devastatingly, in Syria.

Uncertainties abound along the path of the “Arab Spring.” Questions about identity, the present, and the future linger on in every household. A few works in this section focus on the lives and concerns of individual Arabs. The Reluctant Revolutionary (which inspired the title of this article) follows Kais, a Yemeni travel agent torn between his wish for stability, which would attract more tourists to his country, and his growing sympathy for the demonstrators. Aida, the poor Tunisian woman in It Was Better Tomorrow, is a drifter suffering at the lower end of the economic ladder, but determined to cling to hope after the revolution. In No Harm Done, filmmaker Nadia El Fani guides us through a journey into her personal hopes and fears as she leads two fights, one against her own illness, and another against what she perceives as the illness of Arab society, namely the religious movements threatening democracy and social progress.

This ever-present link between public happenings and personal stories in the works selected will hopefully give viewers a genuine and intimate look at what is currently taking place in an intensely turbulent part of our world.

Najib El-Khash


“Arab Spring”

In April 2011 I was in Tunis, trying to cover a story about the revolution in Tunisia. I was going to gather information about what had happened there a few months prior.

It has been said that the revolution in Tunisia was successful thanks to information disseminated by social networking sites. Many people were inspired by the comments on these sites, manifesting into an anti-government movement. During my research, I was able to talk with a man who was said to be the key figure of that movement. According to what he said, the people who originally started the demonstrations were people related to labor unions, and he and his peers just took advantage of that occasion. He said that his original motive for the demonstrations was to oppose Internet censorship. I did not feel any strong will or determination for the revolution from him, perhaps because of what he had just told me. Young people’s knowledge of information technology, as well as their spirit of rebellion against authority and oppression had made this man the central figure of the revolution. He seemed to have mixed feelings. Having been set as the key player of the revolution, he had developed some uncomfortable feelings, but at the same time what had happened as a result of his action has given him a sense of responsibility. For that, he gave me complex impression that differed from the romantic image that I had of the words “Arab Spring.”

Something remains unresolved in my mind, and I wanted to know what it was, so I took this job as coordinator of this screening program. I named the program “Another Side of the ‘Arab Spring’” and chose 7 films with completely different perspectives. I have chosen these documentaries because I believe that they will bring about something that cannot be described by the word “Arab Spring” alone.

In addition to the five films mentioned in the preface by Najib El-Khash, SSS by the Japanese auteur Oki Hiroyuki and What Is to Be Done?, which was screened in the International Competition at YIDFF 2011, offer some clues to figure out what it was I felt back then.

What Is to Be Done? records people living in the back alleys of Mafrouza, Egypt. In an interview, the film’s director Emmanuelle Demoris talked about the daily decisions or selections made by people living in poverty. “While this may seem trivial, I feel that thinking about how one can improve their life and acting upon that thought is, however small, a revolutionary act.” While the director is indicating how she views her subjects, it seems that she is trying to show the power that small decisions made by individuals have in ultimately changing societies.

I am contemplating Oki Hiroyuki’s mission to seek out “[the] connections [this film] and the Arab Spring share, or don’t share,” which he tries to depict in his work SSS. As an artist, Oki attempts to capture historic events as a sensory experience. I wonder whether this attempt, taken to its limit, may not be the sense of reality that we currently feel ourselves. I suppose Oki is asking the question “How can we establish our individuality while maintaining our connection with society, in this era where ties between nations and communities are falling apart around the globe?”

I am sure that these films about the “Arab Spring” will raise important questions for all of us who live in an era in which people are gradually losing connection with one another.

Kato Hatsuyo
Program Coordinator