Q & A with Jasmina & Philip

This is a Q & A Jasmina Metwaly, Philip Rizk that was conducted by Sophie Cavoulacos, Curatorial Assistant, MoMA, Department of Film, as part of the MoMA Films from Here Program.

1- How does your film respond to recent history or the present?

I think this is the kind of question one should ask after one has watched the film. Fiction is not just fiction. Let us say it is something like this: The whole world was watching as we took the streets between 2011 and 2013. Masses of people on a screen - pixillated or HD - with a commentator yelling at you what they wanted you to see.

The Egyptian TV commentators called us spies and thugs; the foreign media called us pro-democracy demonstrators. All of these descriptions are deeply problematic. There is a contest over the narrative happening today, a competition over what is said to have happened during those years. This will only increase with time. The stories are told according to their narrators’ interests: the regime, the business elites, the Muslim Brotherhood, foreign media; each has their story to tell, a story they want the world to believe. So here we tell ours, it has little to do with “the facts” of what happened in the streets, but then neither do the narratives told by everyone else. But most importantly, everyone else’s story ends where our story began, with repression, torture, death - or at least these are the realities, usually not the way the narratives go. But ours ends somewhere else, in the place where things-as-they-are fall apart.

2- What is the role of art in a fraught political climate?

If we consider that "every work of art is an uncommitted crime" (Adorno) then I think a more relevant question to pose would be about the perception of art within our collective consciousness. How we see things and cross the boundaries of what we know or take for granted is what constructs the very texture of the political. Art in such a sense is not about committing a crime per se, but about becoming an agent in mobilizing all parties involved, including the onlookers (audiences) and active participants.

3- What are some of your influences?

We watched endless films while working on this project. One of our clearest influences is Peter Watkins, especially his La Commune - Paris 1871 (2000) which explores a space in film making that is not very common, where through the exploration of time and histories the usual audiences become active participants in the making of the project. Also, Godard acted as a trigger in the very beginning. While we worked on ideas for the film we read Jean Genet and Augusto Boal and Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade and watched Peter Brook’s film adaptation of Weiss’s play as well as films from South America like Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s The Last Supper (1976) and a lot of films by Aki Kaurismaki and Bela Tarr.

4- Can you describe your process of making the film?

This was a very convoluted process. It started with a short documentary that we made about an occupation in early 2011 at the starch and glucose factory in Helwan. The workers at this factory saw what was happening in the streets and decided they needed to respond and do the same and seize control over their place of work. Many of the scenes of the film are based roughly on this story. But we only started researching the story much later towards the end of 2012 and much of 2013, thinking originally that we would work with former workers from the factory. This didn’t work out for various reasons, largely because they were too close to that story and couldn’t imagine anything else. We wanted to use that story as a framework but go beyond it. Then at the end of 2013 after a rough casting we found our actors from the same neighbourhood as the original factory, and worked with a theatre director on a short acting workshop. We took over that process in the end and then the improvisation started, which caught us a bit off guard. We worked without a script, just an outline that provided actors with scenarios. They played these out as they wanted, with some ideas or, let us say, direction from us. The main scenes were made in only one take to avoid repetition and any attempts to ‘act better’. There were many times when the participants asked us, “What is this work about?”