We were just going to work.
The only sound we hear is birdsong.
We became witnesses, to this mass destruction.
Pulling a rope that does not exist we get rid of problems.
In February 2011, the workers of the Starch and Glucose Company occupied the factory in protest of its shutdown. The factory had been privatized eight years earlier, but under the pretext of renovating the factory, the owners started to destroy it.
This is Egypt. We – as onlookers – are witnesses to this destruction. This is a cement factory. This is a refinery. This is a textile factory. The future is overwriting the sites of work and of memory; we – as its alleged protagonists – risk being lost in the dusty annals of state-sanctioned archives and histories. This is not Egypt.
This account is not about “a factory.” This is about everyday stories, systemic violence, collective debt; it is the microcosm that carries the fundamental and unique characteristics of a shared universal condition.
We are attune to a familiar set of imperatives:
Document! Record! For history, looking back, we have inherited this responsibility, to tell stories, to tell the world what is going on. You are the citizen, the worker and the witness. Maybe you are one of the million workers who have lost their jobs, maybe you are one of the millions minds of the invisible insurrection. You act, out of love or responsibility, for the human condition, for yourself, for the coming generations, until you discern another voice arriving from the future.
The voice is broken by interference, yet you heed its wisdom:
Welcome to the impasse. You have reached the end of documentary. You have done everything you can. It is not enough.
I will never forget that scene.
“Out on the Street” – a film by Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk – departs from the tribulations of countless stories of privatization of public sector factories. This is not a film about worker’s struggles, they both tell me on different occasions. They are not trying to offer solution. The film performs a double function. In first place, it is a symbolic antidote in the manner it reverses the process and plight of the public becoming privatized. The improvised sequences, the reenacted scenes by persons around their forlorn work places culminate in this reversal, where the private is made public again. On the other hand, more indeterminately perhaps, there might be a psychoanalytic consequence to Metwaly and Rizk’s undertaking. Studying the actors-as-workers/workers-as-actors re-assume their own roles as well as the roles of their oppressors, be it their patronizing bosses or the thuggish police arbitrarily harassing them, draws on a psychic dimension of their performance. Are the persons performing – reenacting their past – really able to liberate themselves of these traumas? Whereas the film – as study – recalls the extended discussion on Constantin Stanislavski and Bertolt Brecht where theorist Freddie Rokem describes this “process of rehearsals” as psychoanalysis, in the case of the protagonists of “Out on the Street” this entire analysis is put to question.
I want to believe Rokem when he speaks about the universality of trauma, I want it to be true that the actors “[are] merely able to control these traumas more efficiently or to play them better, [even if] there is nothing to be done about the script itself.”1 Perhaps, because in the case of Egypt, there is nothing to be done about the script itself…
There is an element of chance to how you draw that line.
Months after the first visit to the Starch and Glucose factory in 2011, in an attempt to document the worker occupation, the activist-filmmaker-duo found themselves grappling with the limits of the medium of their direct film reports, part of their work with the activist media collective Mosireen. The collective had formed in 2011 months in the aftermath of the uprising, with the primary purpose of documenting the surrounding events and becoming a depository and instant-archive for the revolution. The intentions exceeded the mission of citizen-journalism; some filmic reports were imagined to serve as testimonial material, if not in courtrooms then in public space, against the ensuing collective amnesia, others conceived as video-essays served to challenge common and state-narratives.
Four years later, the collective is reconfiguring, while some of its individual members contend with questions around the form, function and use-value of their practice today. Reflecting on her own work with Mosireen, Metwaly – also an artist – shares her doubt about the purpose of continuing to make video reports and sharing them virally. “I felt I am not actually doing what the protagonists expected me to be doing… at a certain moment it felt that the films were just feeding a post-revolutionary online phenomenon – ” she pauses and adds, “I was doing it because I did believe it can bring about actual change.” We talk about empowerment and its breaking points. In the years leading up to the January uprising in Egypt the force and logic of making records of the uncountable injustices served a specific function. It was in part the din that these videos created, even if primarily online – in lieu of an absent media – that served the visibility of particular cases, circulating facts and evidence among the circles of activist, human and civil rights circuits, eventually seeping through to the media and tugging at attention of the wider public. Image making mounted an expectation that truth could be carried forth, and with it that some form of justice could be attained.
The plight of activism is working against forgetting, against flailing memory and the gradual denial and obliteration of hope. On a given evening some years ago – one amongst many, Mosireen put on Tahrir Cinema – a street screening – showing transgressions by the military on protestors in weeks prior, onlookers denied the images – they refused to accept the memory of what had happened. The throes of this denial calls hope in question, the surreal dictum of images and words, thinking of René Magritte’s “Treachery of Images” – this is not a pipe, even if the corresponding image suggests so, and philosopher Alfred Korzybski’s assertion that “The map is not the territory.” In this case, “The image is not the thing.” Empowerment risks complacency, it implies an understanding that precedes the will to act, and in the best of cases it falls short of its good intentions.
We have no power to give. The only authority is narrative, and imagination bears more power to transform the future, than memory.
In trying to work out ways of understanding the narratives around the factory, as one particular case study and story that encompasses the fluctuating sentiments of the surrounding state of insurgency, the filmmakers hone in on the mechanisms that produce the event. In talking to them, they speak of how they were taken by Jean Luc-Godard’s “Tout Va Bien,” and how watching the film brought back their incisive questions around the occupation of the Starch and Glucose factory. Godard’s film draws on the class struggles in France and the 1968 civil unrest in somewhat indirect fashion; the plot is centered on a factory strike. “We wanted to understand what was going on, and to spend as much time as possible with the workers,” they speak of the beginnings of the project, “we were hoping to find the characters, the protagonists that could tell these stories.”
Initially, believing that “things were just going to happen,” they realized that the people they met were entangled in their own realities, prompting them to deconstruct their initial plan of asking those collaborating on their project to imagine a different reality through theater. Originally, they envisioned a series of performances in public space. They had foreseen their role as collectors of stories, stories that they would direct the actors towards sharing within the communities surrounding the factory. They hoped to take an active position, in provoking discussion or debate, wanting “them” – the actors – to talk about “their own life.”
As they started getting to know some of the characters they would come to work with, the process dictated its own language as scenes – loosely scripted – unfolded and the characters shaped their own narrative. The protagonists were not only eager to dedicate themselves to the months-long process of working on a script-less film, but they appear most of all to be disposed to tell their first-hand accounts, to tell their stories of low-level corruption, injustices, the truths beyond the closure of the factories, and endless encounters of humiliation at the hands of superiors and the state’s police – for no good reason. They gain and bring forward a collective understanding of their synthesized memories that are understood and reimagined in terms of the present, interpellated by the choreography of the cameras.
Isn’t this passage really narrow?
The film is about what is left out, a staggeringly lucid attempt at grasping that which is beyond the real and the documented, beyond mere facts. It is impossible to describe it as fiction, yet throughout it calls forth the power of the imaginary. In Rokem’s analysis of theater and psychoanalysis, he says, “when the private is made public, theater and psychoanalysis become effective.”2 The actors privatize a public event and gain their own understanding of it. The event regains its universal character. There is a constant pendulum between the private and the public that is at play in this decision of the filmmakers to shift from the strictly documentary to borrowing strategies from theater, the process of fictionalizing and re-staging. Through their rehearsals the actors create a fictional relationship to real-life conflicts, a process described by literary theorist Terry Eagleton as transference3. Disentangled from Freud’s projection, the relationship between the film’s authors, their own questions and reflection on their practice meets that of the actor-workers, unfolding into a performance that finds us – the audience – implicated in this relationship as well. This is where the second function of the film is produced.
The problem with the word “worker”
In one scene of the film, the actors are diagrammatically drawing their workspaces. They demarcate the sets of their experiences and of their memories, struggling to accurately represent the sites of their labor and occupation. One worker poignantly points out “this is a broom for sweeping.” As ordinary as it may sound, the comment is striking, as it points to the intentness of representation. I am told that before the filming started, one of the main characters proclaimed, “We have to use our own language.” This demand for and of language is present throughout the film. The references at times resist an accurate translation, yet are implied in the gesticulation and performance. The idioms are commonplace to specific workplace environments, yet they encrypt the wider set of relationships and the constitution of the ordinary person as worker, as citizen and as subject of a current social and political condition.
A sequence of men mime the pulling of invisible strings from their mouths. It is not certain whether they are drawing on it or being drawn by it. In another scene, they collectively emulate the machine. These abstract demonstrations, stripped of language, summon the failures of terminology, the very words and forms the filmmakers reject. The romanticism evoked by the word images around the figure of worker in classical leftist thought, the falsified claim of endowing empowerment, the promise that is broken with each act of making a record of injustice for courts that will not listen. As the viewers, we are witnesses of these concrete demonstrations, as everyday hardships are transmuted into theater and thereafter into film. We are being dealt an emotional memory we are complicit in producing, we become the recipients of a feedback signal of our own reality.
There is something to be done.
There is no question being asked. Week in, and week out, they would meet on the Rooftop Studio – a subsidized artist enclave – in the vicinity of Downtown Cairo, paying their counter-parts to act, engaging in a series of improvised exercises. There is no script. Performing the machines their fathers operated, they walk around the space they act out scenes in which they played out their oppressors, and themselves.
The structures are global patterns.
In Lucas Samaras’ “Another Autointerview,” a set of questions and answers, a self-interrogation intermingled with sincere and sardonic undertones, the late Greek artists asks himself “Why don’t you keep your problems and pleasures to yourself?” followed by his auto-answer “Because I am universalizing them.” In “Out on the Street,” the factory becomes a microcosm of Egypt. Egypt is everywhere. The film embraces the elusive imaginary state that encompasses the contemporary world we live in. The making of the work becomes a method to undo the perceived disjuncture between the personal everyday realities and the seemingly abstract political aura that surrounds this day-to-day life. If violence and injustice are no longer evoked through the image, through the direct act of image making, and are not able to be brought into account, perhaps other means of exploring empathy and understanding are called for.
Just draw it like this.
We rely on our own experiences; the limit of our understanding is the farthest extent of our practice. We learn drawing by drawing, we learn acting by acting. We find ourselves on set, from a factory, from a street; we articulate the extent of our implication within the complex system of institutionalized economy, the intricate web of loans and debt. “We are all farmers, what do we know about privatization?” someone poignantly points out. We all are and what do we know, here we are, out on the street, attempting to draw.
1Rokem, Freddie. Acting and Psychoanalysis: Street Scenes, Private Scenes, and Transference. Theater Journal, Vol. 39, No. 2 (May, 1987) pp. 175-184. Accessed at The John Hopkins University Press. www.jstor.org/stable/3207687. 30/12/2008.
3Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory. London, Oxford University Press: 1983. p. 60.