Reporting on Revolution: Movie Examines Journalists' Battle to Report Egypt's Uprising

By Jess Smee

The documentary "Reporting... A Revolution" tells the story of six intrepid Egyptian journalists who watched in horror from their Cairo hotel as security forces attacked protesters near Tahrir Square during last year's revolution. The film, which screened at this year's Berlin International Film Festival, delves into how reporters react when their home city turns into a war zone.

In January 2011, Nora Younis, a young Egyptian journalist had just arrived home after reporting on the Tunisian revolution. Instead of spending time with her family, fast-moving events on the streets pulled her back into the newsroom: The uprising had spread to Cairo. Before she knew it, Younis was covering another historic protest.

"I just got back from Tunisia and rather than being with my baby son, I had to go to Tahrir Square. The revolution was happening here," she told Spiegel ONLINE. "It feels very different when it happens in your own country: When the outcome of the battle will influence your own and your son's future, it is no longer about journalism. It becomes a personally decisive moment."

That fine line between the personal and the professional forms the crux of the documentary "Reporting… A Revolution," part of the Berlin International Film Festival's spotlight on the Arab Spring. Directed by Bassam Mortada, the film follows Younis, a journalist, blogger and human rights activist, and five of her colleagues as they report on the 18-day revolt which kicked off on Jan. 25, 2011. The film swings between shaky handheld video camera footage of the violent clashes, and the journalists' candid reflections on what happened. Many of them are still trying to come to terms with the horrors they witnessed.

The film shows Younis, website editor of the daily Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of Egypt's leading independent publications, working from a temporary newsroom in a business hotel with an intact Internet connection. Under instruction from former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, the hotel did not let the journalists rent a suite overlooking Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests, but instead gave them a room with a view of the Nile. As it happened, it turned out to be an ideal vantage point, overlooking the Qasr al-Nil bridge where protesters were teeming toward downtown Cairo.

Images Go Global

Through the lens of their video cameras, they watched in horror as security forces attacked with ammunition, water canons and rammed their armored vehicles repeatedly into the crowds. From the hotel balcony they documented one of the most violent clashes of the 18-day revolt, and their footage appeared in news bulletins around the world. In Cairo, despite the Internet ban, many people managed to see the images, and enraged, took to the streets to join the protests.

"I can't say it was easy, filming these scenes from a five-star hotel," Younis said. "People shouted, 'join us' but we watched from a distance… I still see that bridge in my nightmares."

The journalists' accounts show how objectivity, the holy grail of news reporting, is hard to maintain when violence escalates. Mostapha Bahgat, a videographer who repeatedly filmed bloodshed on the front line of the protests, felt morally compelled to join the demonstrators rather than just documenting them. The film shows him, visibly shaken, recounting experiences like the Jan. 28, 2011 crackdown, when security forces killed hundreds of protesters and injured thousands. "Reporting… a Revolution" includes his film of people struggling to help a man who has been shot by security forces. One man yells at Bahgat to stop filming and help. He switches off the camera and carries the injured man away from the front line.

In another scene, a young reporter trains her small camera on police beating demonstrators and dragging them off. The policeman spots her and starts beating her. The camera falls. "It was less pain and more anger," she said afterwards. "I was just doing my job."

Arab Spring in Berlin

"Reporting… A Revolution" is one of a batch of movies about the Arab Spring screening at Berlin's International Film Festival this year. A number of films focus on Egypt and, in particular, on Tahrir Square. "Words of Witness," by Egyptian-American documentary filmmaker Mai Iskander, shown earlier this week, also tracks events through the lens of the media, looking at a young journalist's attempt to find the right words to convey what she witnesses in Cairo.

But, in light of Egypt's ongoing political turmoil, some of the journalists appearing in "Reporting…A Revolution," asked what the protesters' bloodshed and their hard work had achieved. "Looking at the film again now, I feel it hasn't changed anything," said one of the journalists during a panel discussion after the screening on Feb. 16. "We are seeing the same things happen now."

An exhibition to accompany the movie, on display at Berlin's Freies Museum, illustrates her point. Called "Reporting… A Revolution. Continued," the exhibit contains dramatic images taken by journalists and photographers, including some stills from the film that were taken in Jan. 2011. But there are similar shots of protests and bloodshed taken in the months since. The most recent images were taken in late January 2012. Since then, the death toll has continued to rise and the military-appointed government is under increasing pressure, a year after Mubarak was ousted.

Press freedoms, meanwhile, have not improved, Younis said. "Attention is focused on the protests on the street right now," she said. "The army is clamping down on protesters and mainstream television, which is very restricted in how they report. We could be next."

For Younis and her colleagues, Berlin's film festival is an important chance to air their incriminating footage. They want to reach as many people as possible with the documentary. It has already been shown in Egypt, with an emotional screening on Tahrir Square, where crowds yelled along with the on-screen protesters' chants. As Younis sees it, this is one way she can press for justice for the anonymous perpetrators.

"The footage of the bridge still gets to me," she said. "How come the murderous drivers of those vehicles were not tried? We filmed the number plates. It must be simple to check who was driving at the time. Isn't it enough to film it and document it? Obviously it's not as if nothing has happened. Today, there's not even a shrine on the bridge. It's like it has been erased from history."

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