Anna Roussillon, I am the People, 2014. All rights reserved.In 2011, the world watched the people of Egypt rise up against the rule of a 30-year dictator. All eyes were on Tahrir (Liberation) Square; the heart of the uprising. However, Egypt is home to over 80 million people, 60 million of which live outside the urban centres. What were their experiences during this time? How did the uprising affect the typical day-to-day Egyptian family living 700 kilometres from the Square?
Anna Roussillon answers these questions in I am the People, by telling the story of a family in a small village on the outskirts of Luxor. Unlike most documentaries about the Egyptian revolution, which revolve around people’s experiences in and around Tahrir Square, I am the People captures the effect key historical moments have on a family of six (then seven) over three and a half years, in a beautiful Upper Egypt setting, against the backdrop of a fusion between modern and traditional.
Farraj, a loving father and hardworking farmer, tends to his crops in order to make ends meet and support his family. His wife works equally as hard, baking bread, scouting for butane gas cylinders, and also labouring in the field. The film shows the impact of the revolution and political turmoil that follows, on a traditional Egyptian family as they go about their lives.
It starts when a man self-immolates in front of the Shura Council, and ends with Egypt’s current president, Sisi, calling for demonstrations in June 2013, to give him a mandate to “face violence and fight terrorism”. The documentary was shot over four periods, excluding when the revolution kicked off, because ironically Roussillon had left Egypt the day before.
What’s quite interesting is that the documentary was obviously not intended to cover the uprising, because filming began before it even started. However, due to such a significant historical turn, it’s brilliant that the opportunity was taken to capture its effects on rural Egypt.
One does not only see the short-term emotional effects of the euphoria of deposing a dictator, but also the parliamentary and presidential elections that followed, as well as Morsi’s removal from power, which all took place within the span of two and a half years. What’s also very interesting is that all of this is experienced in their day-to-day surroundings, not in a square or demonstration, as all information is disseminated through their television screen in a small room at home.
All the emotions – from the emergence of political awareness, engagement, confusion, and indifference – are captured through a very personal narrative, that of Farraj (the husband), his wife, their children and neighbours.
Roussillon develops a very close relationship with the family, which is revealing in itself. She blends in, giving them the space to be themselves and interact at ease with the camera, if and when they want to.
The instant effect the revolution has on their lives is cleverly portrayed through their difficulties in obtaining gas cylinders. Throughout each period of filming, the shortage in gas becomes clearer. However, their lives go on seemingly unchanged despite all the challenges they face.
Television is their only source of information and soon after the revolution kicks off, Farraj has a satellite dish installed, so he, and his children, can follow the latest developments. This, of course, is a momentous event, as they all gather round. The children’s reactions and expressions to what they see is revealing.
However, what’s more interesting is the difference in women’s and men’s opinions. Farraj’s wife, for example, is never seen watching the news with them and only rarely discusses her points of view of political events as they unfold. When asked or challenged, Farraj’s wife or the neighbour appear to be quite indifferent, or maybe one could say pragmatic. Yet the men are generally more engaged; they will express their opinions, at times mocking each other, but are more open to debate.
Farraj is quite engaged; reading newspapers and following the news, yet quite easily swayed in his opinions by government propaganda. When challenged by Anna, Farraj becomes defensive at times. It is quite clear that a general sentiment of fear still exists; whether he is saying the right or wrong things or wanting to remain on the government’s ‘good side’ – just in case. Yet on other occasions, he is quite insightful, when he is not speaking about Egypt specifically. It’s interesting to see how his thought process evolves over the two and half years, and how he seems to become more sceptical as events unfurl
The beauty of this documentary is how it gives you the feeling that you are living in the midst of this family. It engages the viewer in how Farraj, his family and neighbours go about their lives as history unfolds beneath their feet.
After years of never being politically engaged, to all of a sudden having choices and the freedom to discuss, dispute, reject or accept; experiencing political debates and expressing and hearing points of view on subjects that were always taboo is a journey for each character.
I am the People gives the viewer invaluable insight into what it was like to live through political upheaval for a traditional Egyptian family. There’s a strong sense of continuity and reality. It starts with Farraj in the fields singing classic songs, and ends similarly. The electricity cuts as they are watching the news before the revolution kicks off, then again as Sisi is calling for demonstrations in the summer of 2013. Access to gas cylinders becomes more and more difficult until the women have to share, in order to put food on the table. As it comes to an end, the generational difference in opinion starts to show, as a young man expresses his concerns and discontent with the developments in 2013.
One is left thinking, the people of Egypt have changed, but their living conditions have worsened and authoritarian rule has returned. So, what’s next for Egypt?
I am the People has its UK premiere at the Open City Documentary Festival on 20 June 2015.