Discover This: Art War

Copyright: missing films

„Screw you world, we don’t need you, we’ll just make art!“ Bosaina is in tears after she has performed the song „Porn Police“ with her band Wetrobots at a nightclub in Cairo. She is wearing a leopard leotard and ironically sang about „satanic homosexuals“ and the sexual freedom of women when the crowd starting chanting „Erhal, erhal, erhal!“ which means „Go away!“ Bosaina, like the four other main protagonists of Art War, is trying to express herself creatively in Egypt during the difficult times that followed the Arab Spring. Her struggle and the verbal and physical fights of young Egyptian artists build the centre of a fast-paced and jazzy documentary that has been in Berlin cinemas for a week.

After an unfittingly pregnant voice-of-God commentary about the history of Egypt, the film begins by telling us about the nationwide graffiti ban under president Husni Mubarak and how street artists like the charismatic graphic designer Ganzeer have reclaimed the public spaces with paint and spray cans. We encounter puppeteers and teen rappers at the now symbolic Tahrir Square and are thrown right into an atmosphere of change and revolt. Hamed, a writer who speaks fluent German, tells us his philosophy about revolutions: “Revolutions are, by nature, the engines of history.” On the other side of the square, the now-famous singer Khaled entertains the masses with cheerful songs against those in power: “Down with the military regime!”

Copyright: missing films
Copyright: missing films

Following the chronological order of the events in Cairo, Art War takes a closer look at what we usually don’t get to see: the creative protest of artists who use the walls and houses of their city for public intervention. Ganzeer has produced spray stencils from the headshot of a policeman and put his face all over town with a search warrant written in Arabic. The man in question shot several civil protesters in the face and got arrested after Gazeer’s act of activism, which he calls “alternative propaganda.” The war that the film speaks about is a public and ideological struggle between conservative and progressive forces in the country, not necessarily between young and old, but between Islamic fundamentalists (so the film says) and those who believe in values like freedom, democratic rights, and the wish to live a life in dignity. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic organization that was outlawed under Mubarak, appears to be the ultimate enemy here – a film strategy which makes you want to know more about their history and their political views which the film doesn’t talk about. Instead, Art War focuses on a group of people of whom many have been living abroad for long, a fact that remains uncommented, but eventually doesn’t matter when you hear what is done to prevent the people from exerting their democratic rights.

Copyright: missing films
Copyright: missing films

In times when the Egyptian government managed to shut down all cell phone networks, concrete and paint became a major weapon of the protesters. And when the first graffiti murals are painted over by the supporters of the regime, we realize how highly political art can be in times of change. The Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo had originally been occupied by street artists who painted the portraits of the revolution’s victims on what they coined the “martyr gallery.” The longer the revolution lasts, the harder it is to defend that space and keep it alive in memory of those who died in protest. In one of the most memorable scenes of the film, a street interview with Hamed in Mohamed Mahmoud Street is interrupted by a youth who aggressively asks him to justify the print on his shirt. It only says, “God is busy.” The situation quickly escalates with more and more people asking questions like “Are you an Egyptian?” or “Are you a Muslim?” They eventually force Hamed off the street, thereby giving us a good insight into the heated political situation and the hardships of civil (and artistic) protest before and after Mohammed Mursi’s election.

Copyright: missing films
Copyright: missing films

With only a handful of people in focus, Art War is a selective portrait of the (art) protests in Cairo. The need for constant information and background music makes the film very entertaining, although you sometimes wish for a small break to be able to take in everything you have heard and seen in such a short amount of time. The story of female blogger Aliaa El-Mahdy who gained worldwide attention by posing nude on her blog could have gotten more attention since Gazeer and others coupled her image with that of an Egyptian woman who was sexually harassed by the military police and painted in on the walls of Cairo. Although women only play a supporting role in this film, Bosaina’s breakdown after the concert has lingered in my memory the longest. Her struggles against sexual and artistic oppression show you what Haled says in the very beginning: Revolutions are never started by the majority, but always the minority.

film poster
Copyright: missing films

Art War is a very sweeping and bite-sized investigation into the dramatic attempts of young Egyptians to fight for their right to freedom – using cameras and spray cans instead of guns and tear gas. It gives you hope that the revolution will not devour its children and that artists will have the chance to change the world – or at least the situation in their country.

Art War, Germany 2013, 90 mins.

director: Marco Wilms, cinematography: Marco Wilms, Abdo El Amir, Emanuele Nicolo Bahir Mohamed Wagih, Ali Khaled, Helmy Nouh, Roman Pernack, with: Ganzeer, Khaled, Bosaina, Haled and others,  languages: German, Arabic, English, distributor: missing films

Berlin screenings (screenings in original languages with German subtitles): Lichtblick, Hackesche Höfe, Sputnik, b-ware! Ladenkino; director Marco Wilms will be present on 30.01. at 6 pm at Sputnik and on 31.01. at Moviemento

Discover This! is a weekly Berlin–based film comment.

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