Spring is on the air

Here, realscreen looks at several of the documentaries and documentary makers emerging from the turmoil in four Middle Eastern countries affected by the Arab Spring uprisings.
November 1, 2011

With governments overthrown in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt; sustained civil disorder in countries such as Syria, Yemen and Jordan; and major protests in territories including Algeria and Iraq, the Arab Spring that began late in 2010 and carried throughout this year has left a momentous and indelible mark on the structure of the Middle East.

Throughout the year, reporters, photographers and documentarians from both the West and the Middle East have been on the ground in a variety of countries, embedding themselves with protesting forces or fighters, and trying to make sense of the fog of war, amid what are often uncertain circumstances.

The results of these efforts have made for some remarkable factual programming, ranging from Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s Oscar-shortlisted Egyptian doc In Tahrir Square, to Wael Dabbous’s Syrian effort Undercover Syria.

Here, realscreen talks to filmmakers covering four key territories in the Middle East, to examine how they have documented the uprisings.


The uprising in Syria has proven to be one of the more difficult for Western reporters and documentarians to cover, thanks largely to the issue of getting access to the country.

So far only a handful of Western filmmakers have managed to sneak in. Among them, Sue Lloyd-Roberts, from the BBC’s current affairs strand ‘Newsnight,’ managed to get herself smuggled into Homs – home to some of Syria’s strongest anti-government protests – to document the situation there.

Also gaining access were director Wael Dabbous and reporter Ramita Navai, who produced Undercover Syria, a Channel 4 film which aired in the network’s ‘Unreported World’ strand in October, before playing in the U.S. on PBS ‘Frontline’ in November.

According to Navai, journalists are “itching to get in” to the country, but gaining entrance remains the biggest hurdle for Westerners. She and director Dabbous managed to make it through by applying for tourist visas; a plan they thought would have little chance of success.

“I think it helps that I’m Middle Eastern and the director-cameraman is originally Lebanese, so it was good cover,” she says. “We were a rich, Middle Eastern couple on holiday, and they fell for it.”

Once within the country, other problems presented themselves. “The hardest thing was just getting the camera out, just filming,” Navai explains. “Before I went I spoke to a photojournalist who’d been there weeks before I was due to go, and he had said he’d taken a really nice camera and he couldn’t get it out because he was so scared – he only took photos with his iPhone.

“Everyone is very, very paranoid and very cautious,” she adds. “There are informants everywhere, so we went in with a really small camera and were really careful. If we got caught with any of the activists, they would’ve been imprisoned and tortured, and maybe killed. That was my biggest worry.” Adam Benzine


The uprising in Libya is the timeliest among the Middle Eastern rebellions, with the death of ruler Muammar Gaddafi on October 20 making headlines around the world.

The revolution to depose Gaddafi began after neighboring countries Egypt and Tunisia saw homegrown protests, and cameras were rolling from the very beginning of the unrest.

Behind one of those cameras was documentarian Tim Hetherington, who was killed in April covering the conflict in Libya between rebels and forces loyal to Gaddafi. The filmmaker, best known for the Oscar-nominated doc Restrepo, will now be the subject of Tim Hetherington: His Life and His Work, a one-off documentary for HBO being made by friend and Restrepo co-director Sebastian Junger. The special, which includes footage from Libya, will air on April 20, 2012, the first anniversary of Hetherington’s death.

Meanwhile, in the UK, Current TV will air For the Love of Libya on New Year’s Eve. Lina Prestwood, Current TV’s director of content, commissioned Moonbeam Films to produce the one-hour doc, which tells the story of Libya’s uprising through the voices of young British Libyans.

EP Anne Reevell, and directors Chris Walker and James Reevell, had already been on the ground speaking with the main characters: two English Libyans who set up the first rebel radio station in Benghazi; a young British Libyan man who started the country’s first glossy English-language magazine; and a young woman and her friend who are starting a fashion business in Tripoli.

“The people in the film are the people on the ground and whose tweets [have been] imperative to reporting from the inside,” says Prestwood. “[They're] very much this new generation of young Libyans. It’s a dawn of a new democratic Libya, and they and their businesses represent that.

“The revolution is only the beginning of the story,” she adds. “For us, that’s a big point of difference. It’s not an easy thing to start a new democracy and we want to document that as it is happening.” Kelly Anderson


If ever there was a year that Iran closed its doors to the international documentary community, 2011 was it.

Things weren’t always this way – as recently as 2008, the government-backed Cinema Vérité – Iran International Documentary Film Festival opened its doors to the West, welcoming execs from organizations such as BBC ‘Storyville,’ ARTE France, Hot Docs and Finland’s YLE to Tehran, to network and screen films.

But following the 2009 Green Wave election protests and uprising, the country has clamped down on filmmakers, while also conducting a very public spat with the BBC.

Nevertheless, Iranian filmmakers are continuing to produce films, with one of the most notable works to come out of the country this year being This Is Not a Film, a documentary shot by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.

The doc depicts Panahi’s life under house arrest while awaiting the result of his appeal of a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on filmmaking for committing “propaganda” against the Iranian regime. Panahi shot the film on an iPhone with the help of Mirtahmasb and smuggled it out of the country on a USB stick hidden in a cake. The effort had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and its North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival four months later.

Following its release, Iranian authorities clamped down even harder on the filmmakers in the country, arresting a further six documentarians – including Mirtahmasb – whose films had appeared on the BBC’s Persian feed.

The arrests notably also came shortly after BBC Persian broadcast a documentary deemed unflattering to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader – during which the Iranian government attempted to block the BBC’s signal in the country – and the imprisoned filmmakers were accused by Iran’s minister of intelligence of being “collaborators with the BBC in Iran.”

The international filmmaking community has rallied behind the Iranian filmmakers, with statements from a range of Hollywood stars, unions and organizations urging for their release. As of press time, two of them – Naser Safarian and Mohsen Shahrnazdar – have been released, with the other four still imprisoned. AB


Downtown Cairo’s major public space, Tahrir Square, became the focal point for the Egyptian revolution in the early part of 2011. Aided by Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians gathered there to protest against former president Hosni Mubarak, who stepped down in February.

Almost a year later, multiple documentaries, often using “Tahrir” in their titles, have been released, using material compiled by the media tent that was erected onsite at the Square to collect footage from the demonstrators.

Jon Alpert and Matthew O’Neill’s In Tahrir Square: 18 Days of Egypt’s Unfinished Revolution has already received Oscar notice, having been selected as one of the eight shortlisted contenders for the 84th Academy Awards’ best documentary short subject category.

Meanwhile, French/Italian documentary Tahrir: Liberation Square followed director Stefano Savona as he spent 18 days in Cairo, blending into the crowd at Tahrir Square and capturing everything along the way. His film screened at the New York Film Festival, and it has been selected as the closing film at the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM) on November 19.

Current TV will have the UK premiere of Ruaridh Arrow’s feature doc How to Start a Revolution, airing on New Year’s Eve, which features American political scientist Gene Sharp, whose writings have been the guide for various non-violent revolutions and are credited with inspiring those in Tahrir Square. Current’s Lina Prestwood says the doc “effectively explains how every revolution we’ve seen this year [with] the whole Arab Spring [happened].”

Showing at IDFA’s Best of the Fest section, meanwhile, is a three-part take on the Egyptian uprising, Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician. Made by three different Cairo-based filmmakers – Tamar Ezzat, Ayten Amin and Amr Salama – each film tells different stories relating to the revolution.

Ezzat’s The Good documents some of the individuals who took part while Samara’s The Politician examines the psyche of Mubarak with a satirical segment, “10 Steps to Becoming a Dictator.” Amin’s The Bad focuses on the police officers and security forces, to get their P.O.V.

“The most important thing that happened for me in those 18 days was there was a spirit in the country that I’ve never experienced before,” says Amin. “This is the thing that I want people to feel because it was remarkable.” KA

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.