Arab Spring, a Literary Festival in Gaza, and the Role of Media in Revolution

Profile of Boston Palestine Film Festival artist Omar Robert Hamilton, originally published on Open Media Boston, October 24, 2013.Image courtesy BPFF, from Hamilton's film "Though I Know the River is Dry."

by Tate Williams (Staff)

Omar Robert Hamilton’s entry in the Boston Palestine Film Festival is his third fiction short, but he’s made several other films, dozens, in fact.

They’re mostly brief documentaries he filmed and publicized as co-founder of the Egyptian film collective Mosireen, which played a major role in documenting the 2011 revolution and aftermath. Mosireen became the most-watched nonprofit YouTube channel in Egypt, and even worldwide during one month.

That’s not how he planned his film career to unfold. Hamilton, who is half-Egyptian and half-English and grew up in London, had actually just landed in Washington, D.C., to start a job at a film festival when the revolution began in January 2011.

“It was all happening, it was on TV, all my family were involved, all my friends were involved. It was just clearly this epic—I just got back as quickly as I could,” he said. He was in Cairo in a matter of days, going straight from the airport from Tahrir Square. “I got there on day 3 or day 4, and was filming, just because I thought of myself as a filmmaker.”

His entry in the festival is fiction, but it treads similar geopolitical ground. Though I Know the River is Dry (from a Springsteen lyric) delves into feelings of guilt and conflicted longing for home, against a stark, mostly implied backdrop of Palestinian violence and oppression. He’s one of nearly 40 filmmakers and artists whose work is being featured at the 7th annual Boston Palestine Film Festival, happening at venues across the city this week. The films celebrate a wide swath of Palestinian culture and experience, and include multiple film festival prize winners and an entry into the 2013 Academy Awards. The festival is also showing Occupied Palestine, a documentary first screened at a 1981 festival, during which bomb threat cleared the festival audience and then stifled its release.

Hamilton, whose short was nominated for the prestigious 2013 European Film Awards, took part in a panel discussion Saturday evening at the Museum of Fine Arts, along with fellow director Nora al-Sharif. After the panel, he sat down for an interview to discuss the film, his role in Mosireen surrounding the Arab Spring, his activism in Palestine, and the role that art and media play in revolution.

In his film, the main character returns to Palestine after years in America, reliving a decision to leave his home country, and the consequences that decision had for his family. Hamilton said he sees that choice—between leaving and staying, between relocating and fighting—as one of the main tensions of the Palestinian experience. But it’s also one that he has personal experience with.

“I grew up in London and then was always making choices between London and Cairo—I’m half English and half Egyptian—and then after the revolution began, I made the decision to go to Cairo again full-time and it was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Hamilton had said at the panel. “That tension between coming and going is also something that has run through my own life.”

That decision to go back to Cairo ended up merging his film career and political activism in a way they hadn’t been before, but turned out to be a natural fit. He ended up co-founding the Mosireen Collective, a nonprofit filmmaking group that has published more than 150 videos since the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, drawing 5.3 million views to date.

“It was in the production of videos, and as we kind of built Mosireen up, that film and activism really kind of fused for me and started to make me feel like there was a meaningful, a useful way to make films, rather than necessarily just trying to make fictive scripts and get into Hollywood.”

During and after the revolution, he and fellow independent filmmakers captured a steady stream of footage as the historic moment unfolded. At first it was mostly archiving the events in Tahrir Square, but in the aftermath of Mubarak’s fall, Mosireen played a big part in challenging state information, documenting the Army violently clamping down on the continuing protests, Hamilton said.

One challenge to this kind of independent media work in Egypt is that the Internet is almost entirely limited to the middle class, so much of the general public would be left in the dark. Mosireen’s solution was to hold public, outdoor screenings starting in Tahrir Square, projecting footage from the revolution and beyond for crowds of hundreds.

“That became this totally decentralized street screening campaign that happened all over Egypt. People were basically just downloading stuff off the Internet, and they would download a lot of the films that we were making,” Hamilton said. “Whoever wanted it was downloading it and setting up a projector in their square or their street and doing it. So from, like November 2011 to January there were 10, 20 of these screenings every week. And that made a big, big impact.”

That’s one of the key difficulties with the combination of media or art with activism, particularly in the Arab world—getting that undeniable video clip, or that powerful film, poem or song, out of the lecture halls or the homes of the wealthy, and into the streets in front of the people.

One project attempting to counter that dynamic is the Palestine Festival of Literature (PalFest), which Hamilton also produces, with a mission of “breaking the cultural siege imposed on Palestinians by the Israeli military occupation.”

Started in 2008, the festival brings artists from the UK, United States and the Arab world to partner up with Palestinian authors in free public events across Palestine. It functions like a traveling literary festival, so isolated audiences can still attend the events, with the 2012 event based in Gaza. The event is intended to have a dual impact of supporting cultural life in Palestine, but also delivering a message and affecting public opinion in the West through the authors involved.

For Hamilton, who has long been involved in Palestinian activism, there’s something about actually traveling there that has a tremendous impact and compels visiting authors to take a stand when they return home.

“I think you don’t really get it until you go, because on the one hand it’s very complicated, in terms of the way that Israel occupies Palestine, it’s so multi-layered,” he said. “People call it the situation, ‘Oh the situation is so complicated it’s the world’s most intractable conflict,’ and so on and so on. And so it’s very easy to kind of back away from it. Whereas if you just go, and you go through Kalandia for the first time, everything just boils down to a very simple, ethnic discrimination, land grab.”

Two years after his decision to join the revolution, and now after another toppled presidency, Hamilton continues to live in Cairo and is still filming the ongoing, complicated narrative in his home country, bit by bit, planning longer film projects that help tell the larger story of the revolution. Contrary to what he fears many outside of Egypt believe, the revolt in Tahrir Square was about much more than one election.

“It’s very clear to us in Egypt that this is going to be a 10, 15 year struggle. And I think looking back at it and the beginnings of it, the key thing is that you can’t underestimate how transformative a moment it was, in terms of the public psyche and the people’s sense of what they can possibly achieve,” he said. “As much as every time things go wrong, they go wrong in a horrendously violent way, that power that people felt when it began is not going to go away. And the memory of that is not going to go away.”