A timely revisit to Egypt’s democratic revolution, Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter Of Discontent exposes the human side of the Arab Spring and the power of the image.
Day Of Wrath by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
With the political and democratic crisis in Egypt hitting the headlines again, Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter Of Discontent is a timely exposé of the grassroots groundswell of the Arab Spring in 2011. Focusing on the climates of fear and fragile hope rather than the protests and demonstrations which all take place off screen, this winter of discontent, unlike the namesake trade union strikes of the late Seventies in the UK, is a mutiny mobilised through handheld camera footage and the internet. The Facebook revolution that will be televised. And even with social media sites under lock-down by the Egyptian government, and a people terrorised and confused by an oppressive state service and mollifying TV channels, these protests nevertheless gain momentum as more and more Egyptians join the ranks. Human and poetic, Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter Of Discontent offers a portrait of this unquenchable thirst for freedom with compelling honesty and searing immediacy.
Amr (Amr Waked) lives alone in a flat in Cairo. It’s January 2011, and protests are taking place on the streets beyond, but Amr won’t leave the flat – persuading instead a neighbour to buy tinned provisions for him. He’s haunted by a previous occasion two years ago, following the Gaza War in 2009 when he was arrested by the state service, interrogated and tortured. His ex-wife Farah (Farah Youssef) is a TV presenter on Heart Of The Country, where in exchange for her career ambitions, she peddles lies about the peacefulness of the protests until one night she is caught up in the violence, driving a young man who’s been shot to the Egyptian Cultural Centre for medical treatment. She quits her job and films the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, recording her testimony to inspire others to join the revolution. But as Amr is arrested for uploading the clip to YouTube with his satellite phone and Farah is interrogated by the state service, we begin to glimpse the human cost of rebellion.
Winter Of Discontent opens with a slow pan over bed, books and a laptop. It’s the intimate, domestic space of Amr, sleeping and dreaming of Farah – depicted by a smooth, controlled camera. For the most part, the cinematography is cool and deliberate, but as we cut to Amr’s arrest in 2009, it’s a handheld camera that rushes through the police station behind Adel, the head of state security, watching on surveillance screens both Amr and a rabble-rousing imam humiliated into obedient submission, forced to drink and then soil himself. The camera is an agent of truth, objective, human and immediate. And like the screensaver the camera lingers over, with its waterfalls and whales, the camera offers a peaceful view of the Egyptian protests. But unlike the editorialising of Heart Of The Country, seeking to reassure the country with rigged calls, omissions and spin, it’s not a cleansed view of the Arab Spring, just history from the wings.
There is however a disconnect between the image and the emerging truth, polemicised in Winter Of Discontent, as state TV refuses to report on the violent protests, confusing the people of Cairo who can either hear the demonstrations from their balconies or see them on a foreign channel. It’s part of the government’s patriarchal control over dissidents, women and the “scum youth with internet and cut-off pants” they believe are sabotaging the country. The programme’s hosts bicker over interrupting each other while demonstrations and explosions on other screens are ignored, never to be seen by the people.
But just as President Hosni Mubarak orates three speeches, a process culminating in democratic change which provides the film with its backbone, the state men’s grip on the country begins to falter. Beyond the government-sponsored fabrications of state TV, there’s an underground river of frank images and testimonies bubbling up onto the internet and driving the revolution – such as the YouTube testimony posted by the Egyptian journalist who reported on Bosnia and was interrogated by the state service and tortured with electric shocks upon his return. And it’s through clips such as these, and through the very personal risks taken by Amr and Farah, that the rebellion gains in strength. And at the end, as Farah and Amr stand on a bridge over the River Nile, it’s made apparent they’re simultaneously both characters and living and breathing Egyptians (whose fictional alter egos even bear their names) – revolutionaries through cinema.
Ibrahim El-Batout also seizes the opportunity to question the plight of Egypt’s disenfranchised women; there’s the state security chief’s wife who needs her husband to explain history to her as it’s being made and Farah, who dares to go beyond her role as pretty co-host, even interrupting her fellow presenter or challenging a lying caller. And in the end, Winter Of Discontent is just as much Farah’s story, as she rejects the controlled image of Egyptian TV in favour of her own high-profile and moving testimony – movingly exposing herself as a coward who turned a blind eye and who became their tongue for her own ambition. She also condemns Egypt – isolated, afraid and turned against each other – laying down a truth which calls a country to arms.
Winter Of Disconnect is not an objective documentation of the rights and wrongs of the Egyptian Spring – the revolutionaries are whitewashed clean, El-Batout going to great pains to point out the citizens’ committees protecting their streets, when they’re held to ransom by the police, are neither armed nor thieves. It’s the Egyptian state that’s in the dock – accused of agitating by setting fire to the Cairo museum only to be put out by the kids on Tahrir Square. But nevertheless the rebels’ protests for water, food, education and humanity expose by their very simplicity the heavy-handed brutality and arrogance of the state police. By the end, with the dissidents released and the apparatchiks fled, the revolution belongs to everyone – the family upstairs united in welding a spike strip to protect their street. And as the final credits roll, revealing the numbers of the martyred, injured, blinded and imprisoned, there’s a hint at the ongoing battle with the Establishment. But as a powerful and articulate condemnation of the former regime and a testament to Egypt’s democratic change, Ibrahim El-Batout’s Winter Of Discontent remains hopeful this winter can be made glorious summer.
Winter Of Discontent is released on 23rd August 2013 in the UK