Friday, January 11, 2013

Fredrik Stanton's UPRISING: Egypt's Arab Spring in a way we've not been privy to--until now; a short Q&A with the filmmaker

Can it really have been almost two years since the world watched its television set, enrapt, as Egypt's citizens, in what we were told at the time was a peaceful demonstration, brought about the downfall and abdication of their highly unpopular President/Dictator Hosni Mubarek? Next month marks the two-year anniversary of that storied event, time enough for the world to have realized -- yet again, if anyone's sense of history remains intact -- that Democracy doesn't simply appear in a country, once the current set of bad guys bites the dust.

The occasion for my musing is the theatrical opening today of a new documentary called UPRISING, from first-time filmmaker Fredrik Stanton (shown at right) that gives us the aforemen-tioned event in a manner that seems to me more compelling and complete than anything I've yet seen -- certainly more so than the sound-bite TV coverage we received, and even more than the interesting, on-the-ground-amongst-the-people documentary Tahrir: Liberation Square, that opened at the Mayles Cinema this past June.

For those particularly concerned with what has happened to Egypt since those heady days, I urge you to read the excellent article in this week's The New Yorker magazine by Peter Hessler, explaining quite a bit about The Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that rose to power shortly after the overthrow of Mubarek. Mr. Stanton's film, by necessity, deals only with the period of the initial protest leading up regime change, but the view it allows us to see and the voices we hear are interesting & pointed.

Mr. Stanton also provides us the clearest, most focused assessment of the reasons for the protest -- repression, youth activism & social media, the murder of Khaled Said, and the Tunisian revolution -- and then shows us why all this helped turn a protest into the amazing event that it became. (You may find the story of Khaled and the powerful photo shown of his mutilated body enough, all on their own, to foment a revolution.)

To mange this point-by-point, step-by-step recap, the filmmaker interviews a fairly wide range of Egyptians who protested, from students to one rather famous actor, and then intercuts after the fact a lot of on-the-street action with intelligent, thoughtful ruminations from his talking heads.

The movie helps us understand the incomprehension and stupidity of the Mubarek regime in the manner in which it tried to contain the revolution. As one speaker explains, the decision to shut down internet access was pivotal -- not in clamping down on things, but in forcing citizens back out into the streets which was by then the best means of communication and exactly what the regime did not want to happen.

We also learn, Khaled Said aside, that this was anything but a peaceful, non-violent revolution. While the protesters were initially non-violent, things changed. Notes one speaker, "If you beat us, we will beat you; touch us and we will touch you." At another point, men kneel down in prayer in Tahrir Square, and the regime attacks. "Kill us whilst we pray," a demonstrator urges. "Show us how ugly you can be." While, for the demonstrators, it was mostly merely pushing, the police, we learn, would sometimes shoot protesters in the face. In the end, the body count was 840 killed and more than 6,000 injured. So much for the non-violence theory.

This is a powerful movie, and though we know how it turns out, Mr. Stanton has made the event seem exciting, suspenseful -- and most especially vivid, vital and important -- all over again. Uprising opens today, Friday, Jan. 11, in Manhattan at the Quad Cinema.

 Meet the filmmaker in person, as Fredrick Stanton 
shows up for a Q&A with his audience 
following the 7:15 show tonight, Friday, January 11.


TrustMovies has his own short Q&A with this filmmaker, too. The following questions were emailed to him, post-viewing. Below, TM appears in boldface, Fredrik Stanton in standard type:

As middle east dictatorships fall, whether the Shaw in Iran, Sadaam in Iraq and now Mubarak in Egypt, all they ever seem to be replaced with is horrific religious fundamentalism. Any hope here for democracy resting side by side with Islam?

The important thing is protection of basic rights, minority rights, separation of powers, freedom of the press, and a functioning independent judiciary. If these are put in place, there are fewer opportunities for abuse. The Middle East would benefit from more examples of countries where piety does not have to result in control and despotism.

Amen to that.  So what is your gut feeling, and that of those Egyptians you are closest to, regarding what is going to happen? Will the military allow any sort of democracy? And worse, is the Muslim Brotherhood set to destroy the budding of democracy?

The young activists I interviewed are keenly aware that removing Mubarak is only the first step to achieving a functioning democracy in Egypt. It is very encouraging that they have continued to push back against both the Egyptian military and the Muslim brotherhood's encroaching on their rights. This is a process that will take time to play out, and there may be a period of continued instability. The opposition is learning from its mistakes, and over time I have confidence in those Egyptians who desire freedom and don't want to live under an authoritarian theocracy.

I am hoping that this will not be the final choice Egypt faces, but if so, which is better for the country -- a secular dictatorship or a fundamentalist religion leading it?

I think the distinction between a secular dictatorship or a fundamentalist religion leading the country means little to those who can be arrested without cause, taken away in the middle of the night and tortured, or to to the people whose government is unaccountable to their basic needs. Lack of freedom in any form is unacceptable, and the Egyptian people deserve better than either type of tyranny.

Finally: my favorite part of the film -- and one of its most ironic, hilarious sections (I thought, at least) was your interview with ex Ambassador Frank G. Wisner, who tells us something to the effect that seeing an orderly transition simply had to be the U.S. ambition because, "We are a responsible nation." Did you have to keep from giggling at this point? Hasn't the U.S. supported Mubarak for decades? 

I think Ambassador Wisner represents a major school of thought in American foreign policy that believes the US needs to deal with governments in power, even if we find their behavior offensive, especially when vital strategic interests are at stake. This is why the US supported Mubarak for decades, and continues to support similar regimes around the world. I recognize that this is a prevailing view, and I strongly disagree with it. Of course the US must look after its strategic interests, but in the long run our interests are better served by supporting peoples' desire for freedom, which is more consistent with our principles. And, as we have found, dictatorships are fragile, and when they fall, this leaves us in a very awkward position.

I agree, and I wish our political leaders could find a way to implement this idea. Anyway, thank you so much for this film, and I'll look forward to whatever you're doing next. What might that be -- if you even know at this point? 

I'm hoping it'll be a vacation. Thank you for taking the time to write about the film and share it with your audience.

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