Wael Omar has been working in film and TV for the past ten years and is recognized for his achievements in digital activism and documentaries, his films have aired on BBC Storyville, AlArabiya, CMN and ITVS, as well as being featured at various film festivals. With an eye on the ascending media market in the Middle East, Wael founded Middle West Films in 2008 along with fellow Egyptian independent filmmakers. Based in Cairo, Middle West Films is a development and incubation house for feature documentary projects with authentic cultural appeal to both domestic and international markets. Six years ago, Omar film’s State of Emergency captured a firsthand account of the state of fear that existed; the systemic police brutality and torture that took place during the 2005 presidential elections when Hosni Mubarak ran against other candidates. On January 25, 2011, when Wael Omar went down to Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest for democracy, he expected to do what had always come naturally – make a film. Three days later, however, he would put down his camera and fight alongside his people, transitioning from director to citizen journalist:
-As a filmmaker, what kinds of projects do you gravitate towards?
-“Socio-political documentaries, human stories and stories that revolve around the advent of globalism and certain global phenomen. Really anything that has to do with showing Cairo and Egypt in a new light.
-How is documentary viewed in Egypt? Is it considered more as a form of journalism rather than a cinematic art form?
-“Yes, on one level as journalism, but on another level it’s a way into making feature films, because documentary is not really given the weight that it has in the West. Obviously, I’m from a different school of thought completely and I think slowly we’re gaining ground to make feature documentaries. We’re trying to get one screen in a local movie theatre in Cairo to dedicate itself to screening only independent films and documentaries.
-State of Emergency followed the 2005 elections in Egypt. With the recent revolution, did you approach it as a filmmaker or an activist, or both? How did your role change?
-When I went down (to Tahrir Square) on January 25th, it was out of sheer curiosity, but on [the] other hand I’m always ready to take the camera and go. When we got there we quickly realized that this was something much bigger than we all expected, so by the 28th – the Day of Rage as they call it now – I had my camera with me, but we were quickly faced with brutal force. So you find yourself making the decision to be either a filmmaker or fight for your cause. At that point I put the camera away to work with the protesters.”
-Did you remain primarily as a protester, or were there times throughout the course of those weeks that you picked up your camera again with the intention to create something similar to State of Emergency?
-There was a small problem. I was disabled for a few days, because I got shot on the 28th. Thankfully there were no major injuries, nothing significant enough to do any long-term harm. I was on antibiotics, so three days later I got up and went back to Tahrir Square. Then there were job offers left and right, to be a fixer for the New York Times and Human Rights Watch, which I ended up doing. We went around and did some investigating. Thinking back, that was probably the most dangerous situation I’ve put myself in, even more than getting shot to be honest, because those were the days when all foreigners were suspect. I have a lot of friends that were detained for even helping out. So I guess I was sort of thrown into being a freelance revolutionary and found myself liking the job very much.
I had enough friends that were filming, including several other filmmakers that I work with, so I felt that the coverage was there. Having the background from the film I made in 2005, I had a lot of connections. Many of the people I had interviewed in State of Emergency turned out to be the people that were involved in instigating the revolution. Right now, all of us are sort of journalists – we’re all citizen journalists to a large degree with everything that’s happening on Facebook and Twitter. There’s an overall feeling that the media is not treating us fairly, and so we’re the only ones that can actually do the work on the ground and be honest about it.
–How did social media play a role in the revolution among filmmakers
-I’ll be honest; I don’t want to overplay it too much because I feel like the international media is so fixated on it that it starts to detract from our own cause. We certainly owe a debt to social media and instant communications technologies, even the SMS, but at the same time, without having a good cause it’s not a silver bullet. To use the environmentalists as an example, social media has not been able to mobilize the kind of support that’s needed to make an environmental revolution worldwide. At the end of the day, you need a critical mass of people that are willing to put themselves on the line for a cause. Whatever tool is used to gather them, it’s just a tool.
-I think this is what Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were able to do. Of course the speed at which this tool enables us is a super speed. I find out about events on Twitter way before they make it to the press. So in a sense, the immediacy aspect did help galvanize and energize the revolution. Yet, if we hadn’t been a people that had been subjected to severe oppression, psychological torture and lack of freedom we wouldn’t have responded. Now, the good thing is all eyes are on Egyptian news to see what they’re doing online and how they’re going to continue using these tools. We’re at the vanguard of creating new meaning to these technologies, new uses for them and new contexts for the power they carry.
–How will social media tools change activist cinema or human rights documentaries? Will people be more reliant [on picking up] their iPhones as opposed to a film camera?
-As far as activist cinema is concerned, this is great. At the same time, it’s getting past the barrier of production value, so now the iPhone camera is also an HD camera. So that’s a positive aspect, as far as social media is concerned, or even online platforms that allow you to distribute and disseminate immediately without boundaries. Whereas five years ago, if the film was too niche, it would never have been made. The Internet is good for niche and I think filmmakers will be getting better younger. If you have an interesting subject you can pick up your phone and film it.
«The media is not treating us fairly, and so we’re the only ones that can actually do the work on the ground and be honest about it»
-What is the documentary climate in Cairo? How many of your colleagues are making documentaries about the revolution?
-Tons! There are about 30 of them! If anything, it’s overkill. The problem is they’re all very rawstyle documentaries about inside Tharir, which are great, because the world needs to know what happened in detail. But at the same time – maybe because I’m also politically inclined – I find it’s too early to make anything that has any sort of finality. The shelf life of a film made now is not going to be very long. The situation is so fluid, everyday it’s changing, and so you could end up making a film that’s not so future-proof, unless you actually plan to shoot until there is some kind of conclusion.
-What’s the social climate right now in Cairo, if you could describe the energy?
It’s crazy, also dynamic, anxious, and full of surprises. There is a fatigue, I won’t lie, and a high frustration also. So I guess it depends on what kind of a person you are to either appreciate this or miss the false security of our former dictator. But it’s certainly a new Egypt – you can feel it. With all the good and bad, there’s something very new and I think it’s a positive thing overall. The quicker people understand that, the more they’re able to deal with all the changes and transitions they need to make in their lives. We had institutionalized corruption, institutionalized cronyism, institutionalized social injustice, over stratification, a virtual caste system. So it’s more than a political revolution, this is a cultural revolution.