Freelance revolutionary: Wael Omar
Al Jazeera’s Melanie Sevcenko talks to Wael Omar. Originally published on Al Jazeera on April 18, 2011.
Six years ago, Wael Omar’s short documentary film, State of Emergency, presented a firsthand account of the state of fear, systemic police brutality and torture that prevailed during the 2005 Egyptian presidential election.
When on January 25, Omar went down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square with thousands of Egyptian pro-democracy protesters, he expected to do what had always come naturally to him – make a film. Three days later, however, he put down his camera to fight alongside his people, transitioning from director to citizen journalist.
As a filmmaker, what kinds of projects do you gravitate towards?
Socio-political documentaries, human stories and stories that revolve around the advent of globalism, and certain global phenomenon. Really anything that has to do with showing Cairo and Egypt in a new light, so certainly I’m interested in films that revolve around social justice, democracy, politics and minorities.
We’re working on something now regarding the Nubians, the minority in Egypt. They were part of ancient Nubia but they’ve been sidelined and forgotten ever since the Aswan Dam was built. Basically, when the dam was built it flooded half of ancient Nubia, and some of the ancient ruins are now under water.
Did you approach the Egyptian revolution as a filmmaker or as an activist and how did your role change during the course of the uprising?
When I went down to Tahrir Square on January 25, it was out of sheer curiosity, but on the other hand I’m always ready to take the camera and go. When we got there we quickly realised that this was something much bigger than we all expected, so by the 28th - the Day of Rage as they call it now - I had my camera with me. But we were quickly faced with brutal force, so you find yourself making the decision to be either a filmmaker or to fight for your cause. At that point I put the camera away to work with the protesters.
I got shot on the 28th, but thankfully there were no major injuries. Three days later I went back to Tahrir Square. Then there were job offers left and right, to be a fixer for the New York Times and then for Human Rights Watch, which I ended up doing. We went around and did some investigating. Thinking back that was probably the most dangerous situation I’ve put myself in, even more so than getting shot to be honest, because those were the days when all foreigners were suspect.
I have a lot of friends that were detained for even helping out. So I guess I was sort of thrown into being a freelance revolutionary and found myself liking the job very much. I had enough friends that were filming, including several other filmmakers that I work with, so I felt that the coverage was there. Having the background from the film I made in 2005, I had a lot of connections. A lot of people I had interviewed in State of Emergency turned out to be the people that were involved in instigating the revolution.
How is documentary filmmaking viewed in Egypt? Is it considered more a form of journalism than a cinematic art form?
Yes, on one level as journalism, but on another level it’s a way into making feature films, because documentary is not really given the weight that it has in the West. Obviously, I’m from a different school of thought completely and I think slowly we’re gaining ground to make feature documentaries. We’re trying to get one screen in a local movie theatre in Cairo to dedicate itself to screening only independent films and documentaries.
When you’re an independent filmmaker you have a get-it-done attitude. This has been my philosophy for pretty much anything I do. Being a fixer wasn’t something I needed to be previously trained to do. Right now, all of us are sort of journalists – we’re all citizen journalists to a large degree with everything that’s happening on Facebook and Twitter. There’s an overall feeling that the media is not treating us fairly, and so we’re the only ones that can actually do the work on the ground and be honest about it.
What role did social media play in the revolution?
I don’t want to overplay it too much because I feel like the international media is so fixated on it that it starts to detract from our own cause. We certainly owe a debt to social media and instant communications technologies, even the SMS, but at the same time without having a good cause it’s not a silver bullet.
To use the environmentalists as an example, social media has not been able to mobilise the kind of support that’s needed to make an environmental revolution worldwide. At the end of the day, you need a critical mass of people that are willing to put themselves on the line for X cause. Whatever tool is used to gather them, it’s just a tool. I think this is what Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were able to do.
Of course the speed at which this tool enables us is a super speed. I find out about events on Twitter way before they make it to the press. So in a sense, the immediacy aspect did help galvanise and energise the revolution. Yet, if we hadn’t been a people that had been subjected to severe oppression, psychological torture and lack of freedom we wouldn’t have responded.
Now, the good thing is all eyes are on Egyptian news to see what they’re doing online and how they’re going to continue using these tools. We’re at the vanguard of creating new meaning to these technologies, new uses for them and new contexts for the power they carry.
But I have to say, for every good there’s always a bad. In Iran it’s a different story. Here, we were fortunate enough that the authorities weren’t so savvy, but in Iran they use social media against social media users. It also happened several times in Tahrir. If one rock is thrown among 30,000 people, 50,000 Tweets occur about this one rock, and all of the sudden one rock looks like a riot. So the ability to disseminate misinformation is equivalent in power.
How will social media tools change activist cinema or human rights documentaries? Will people be more likely to pick up their iPhones as opposed to a camera?
As far as activist cinema is concerned, this is great. At the same time, it’s getting past the barrier of production value, so now the iPhone camera is also an HD camera. So that’s a positive aspect as far as social media is concerned or even online platforms that allow you to distribute and disseminate immediately without boundaries.
Whereas five years ago, if the film was too niche, it would never have been made. The internet is good for niche and I think filmmakers will be getting better younger. If you have an interesting subject you can pick up your phone and film it.
What is the documentary climate like in Cairo now? How many of your colleagues are making documentaries about the revolution?
Tonnes! There are about 30 of them. If anything, it’s overkill. The problem is they’re all very raw-style documentaries coming from inside Tahrir Square, which are great, because the world needs to know what happened in detail. But at the same time - maybe because I’m also politically inclined – I find it’s too early to make anything that has any sort of finality.
The shelf-life of a film made now is not going to be very long. The situation is so fluid, everyday it’s changing, and so you could end up making a film that’s not so future-proof, unless you actually plan to shoot until there is some kind of conclusion.
What is the mood like in Cairo now?
It’s crazy, also dynamic, anxious, and full of surprises. There is a fatigue, I won’t lie, and a high frustration also. So I guess it depends on what kind of a person you are to either appreciate this or miss the false security of our former dictator. But it’s certainly a new Egypt - you can feel it.
With all the good and bad, there’s something very new and I think it’s a positive thing overall. The quicker people understand that, the more they’re able to deal with all the changes and transitions they need to make in their lives.
We had institutionalised corruption, institutionalised cronyism, institutionalised social injustice, over-stratification, a virtual caste system. So it’s more than a political revolution, this is a cultural revolution.