The Blog

The Arab Winter of Discontent

Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout's sober drama seeks to tell the 'behind-the-scenes' story that led to the Egyptian uprising of January 2011, and the fall of its incumbent dictator.

Last month at the London Film Festival, Egyptian filmmaker Ibrahim El Batout, who directed the nuanced, Ains Shams/Eye of the Sun (2008), showcased the UK premiere of his latest feature-length work, Winter of Discontent/Ell Sheita Elli Fat (2011). No, this isn't the British Winter of Discontent, but an Egyptian one. Batout's sober drama seeks to tell the 'behind-the-scenes' story that led to the Egyptian uprising of January 2011, and the fall of its incumbent dictator.

Moments in, it very quickly becomes apparent that the film wants to charge police brutality with the brunt of contemporary Egypt's political disenchantment. The film's protagonist Amr (Amr Waked of Syriana fame) is ferociously beaten within the first third of the picture and it is that act of violence that Batout suggests leads to the simmering discontent of revolution.

Anyone studied in the manner in which 'Arabs' are portrayed in cinema will cringe at the narrative's simple binaries. It seems that Arabs in hegemonic moving pictures are always subject to some form of violence - one that is often used to crudely justify grand social narratives. Take for instance, The Yacoubian Building from 2006, the box office record breaker that sought to align Islamic fundamentalism with one of its characters' being psychologically raped by the police. Likewise, consider the documentary also produced in 2006 called Real Bad Arabs, which illustrated how Hollywood cinema reduces Arabs to a set of archetypes, i.e. the 'terrorist', the naïve slapstick, the arrogant oppressor, a quiet Bedouin, and so forth.

Batout's film isn't interested in dispelling stereotypes, but I am curious about what the point of it is. Is it a sombre song of the past created during an impasse - when state run media would not 'reveal' the truth to its people? Is this Batout's lasting document of the revolution?

The impetus is not clear. Temporally the film lacks any sense of spirited urgency. The cinematographer's subdued shots linger like faded memories - fixed in a space and time that feels far too distant to grasp. Is this an allegory of how 'numbing' police brutality can be? So much so, that even the urgency of a revolution cannot pierce through such despondency?

Winter of Discontent is a frustrating film that never quite picks up. Here is an Egyptian - making a film about political dissidence during an ongoing Arab uprising that inexplicably seeks to sidestep the cinematic tendency of proposing a discourse, a potential direction, standpoint or message.

Its protagonist chooses not to speak to us. After the film sees Amr being beaten to a pulp, he chooses to live in seclusion. Protest abounds in public. We can hear it, but never do we see it. His girlfriend, Farah on the other hand, working for a government television station is made privy to all the expectant pressures faced when a state-supported media organization is torn between balancing the truth and its structural allegiances.

One wonders whether Batout wanted to escape the oppressive formula of making a film about the grandiose spectacle that the international community would expect from such a newsworthy motion picture. Indeed, choosing not to show the Egyptian revolution in its physical manifestations (and its violence) is arguably the boldest thing about Winter of Discontent. Still, it is impossible to fathom why Batout was keen to see a still 'live' event buried and disconnected from the present.

We can read further connotations from the title, which has been transposed from its original meaning in Arabic, El Sheita Elli Fat i.e. Last Winter to its current terminology - Winter of Discontent - a much more dramatic moniker that leaves the audience much more expectant.

Another film dealing with similar social tensions, 5 Broken Cameras (2011) is also making the festival and cinema circuit along with Winter of Discontent. Contrarily, the latter is a formidable project that seeks to tell the story of political resistance through the language of cinema, as opposed to working against it. A first hand account of non-violent protests in the West Bank of Palestine, the film is formed from collated material by a Palestinian farmer called Emad Burnat and edited by an Israeli filmmaker called Guy Davidi. Shot almost entirely on Burnat's handheld camera, the film began coincidentally when the farmer wanted to document the birth of his first son. As life ensues however, Emad Burnat's camera turns its eye to documenting non-violent village protest against Israeli land encroachment. Each year however, the camera is destroyed - its agency being all too threatening for the state apparatus. Luckily, another camera ascends to the place of the former. 5 Broken Cameras creates a mesmerizing portrait of how a 'site' can evolve over a period of time through the gaze of multiple lenses.

Some will argue however that a film such as 5 Broken Cameras is not an 'Arab' film because of the intertwined nationalistic stances of each of its filmmakers as, but I choose to disagree. 5 Broken Cameras is as rich a slice as any Arab cinema, and reminds us how the material nature of film and video can transcend sociopolitical conditions, without exotically fore-fronting the violent spectacle of political dissidence.