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Rant: Marco Wilms Art War — a Dangerous Document

Over the past three years, a great number of films dealing with the Egyptian Uprising, whether documentary, docufiction or pure invention have been brought to screens and festivals around the world. The latest such offering I have watched, Marco Wilms documentary Art War, is an interesting and polarising case. 

ART WAR - Trailer from HELDENFILM on Vimeo.

"ART WAR is the story of young Egyptians who, through art and enlightenment, and inspired by the Arab Spring, use their creativity to salvage the revolution. Using graffiti murals and rebellious music and films, they inspire the youth culture around the world and throughout the streets of conquered Egypt.

The film follows revolutionary artists through 2 years of post-revolutionary anarchy, from the 2011 Arab Spring until the final 2013 Parliament election. It describes the proliferation of creativity after Mubarak’s fall, showing how these artists learn to use art in new ways--as a weapon to fight for their unfinished revolution."

A subjective review:

 It is a well-made film, with some truly impressive images, an engaging soundtrack, a tightly- edited narrative structure. A film that follows the actions of four artists over three years, he picks out the most visible events of the Egyptian revolution, highlights their motivations and production at various stages of the uprising.  It is a kick of artistic energy in the pants and a reminder of the long memory that walls have. It is a subjective exploration of the arts as a means of recording and resistance and expressing personal politics. It is a tale of peaceful revolution in the midst of street battles, arrests, deaths. It is a tale of those that have become the memory of the Egyptian uprising, the writers of the first draft of history.

His four main protagonists, Ganzeer, Ammar, Hamed and Bosaina come from very different backgrounds and may be said to represent the more liberal factions involved in the uprising. Ganzeer, a multifaceted graphic designer from Cairo, adopts methods of direct participation and expands the Egyptian world-view on sexuality and womens desires. Ammar, from Luxor, is a classically trained artist with an almost pharaonic penchant towards large scale murals he considers to be the newspaper of the revolution. Hamed, the writer and militant anti-islamist, provokes and reflects in equal parts. The reciepient of  death threats from the Muslim Brotherhood, and later abduction by forces "unknown", he is almost as radical as those he opposes. Bosaina, a electro-pop singer reminiscent in style and content of a tamer version of the Berlin band Peaches ("Fuck the Pain Away"), admits that she has segregated herself from the mainstream of Egyptian society- "It's Easier", she tells us.

We also see some others- Rami Essam, a singer who rose to fame during those 18 days between January 25 and February 11, 2011; Alaa Awad, a mural artist who employs contemporised ancient Egyptian motifs to express himself, Ammars teacher- the relation between the characters remains tenuous- a Salafi PR persons, who has very white teeth and shows us the anti- secular propaganda. We visit Sufi ceremonies in Upper Egypt. A Muslim Brotherhood demonstration. Many brief glimpses into lives along the lines of an uprising, its ups and downs. But they remain glimpses out of context.

In spite of a time-line that guides the viewer through the events that surround the "art war", ongoing in Egypt, it is hard to put the scenes of the film in relation to the events of the last three years. At times, lost between the internal chronology of the film and the timeline of the Egyptian uprising, I found myself asking which narrative to follow and adhere to. The context of the actions is very sparsely explained, except in the case of the Port Said Massacre. My biggest disappointment was the brief image of millions of Egyptians taking to the streets to topple Morsi, omitting to mention the Tamarrod campaign that lead up to it, the electoral promises broken- commented only as such. And then the film ends, leaving us with the impression that events in Egypt end with the rise of the military to power- and that the Egyptians always wanted a military dictatorship to be instated. 

Although this is more indicative of when the photography of the film ended- around the 5th of July 2013, it is also representative of a film that chooses to elicit emotions from its audience, rather than inform them about the history of the events that it depicts. While this is a valid, filmic, approach, it is also one of the dangers of watching that film without prior knowledge of the events that unfold within. It is not a film that asks questions, nor is it one that adds to the information already available. Rather, it chooses to show the audience moments of artistic heroism and defeat, catering to the mainstream with luscious pictures, the energy of a teenager in rebellion and very rare moments of insight. Even though it offers some interesting reflection on graffiti and public art as a medium of grass-roots expression, it does not follow this reflection with much depth. 

Another note has to be made of Bosaina, she of the Wetrobots. This comes in the form of the admission that I have a more than passing familiarity with the Cairo Art scene, and so far, those that have heard of her do not live in Cairo. She represents an edge to sexual liberation that the city finds hard to accept, with her lyrics laden with sexual references and not-so-innuendo. She is booed out of the Cairo Jazz Club, by an audience who cannot relate to this woman, wearing a full-body leopard print suit. She converses with her friends in English- the only character in the film to do so continuously- and cries. While her inclusion in the film does allow an exploration to another angle of an art war, the personal battle for acceptance of a different point of view and sexual liberation, she caters more to the eyes and ears of a Western Audience than that of the local scene. She is later to leave Cairo, vowing not to perform in Egypt again- for a while at least. 

She is the only female protagonist in the film, reducing the aspirations of revolutionary women in Egypt to the liberation of their sexual identity and desires. Aliaa Al-Mahdy makes a brief appearance in stencil form. A counterpart less focused on sexual themes, fighting for a right to a voice, equality at the workplace, against the harassment endemic to Egyptian society, academic freedoms, religious interpretation, the ownership of public space or freedom of press and expression, is absent- and there are many. Moving within the Graffiti scene, Wilms might have shone a light on the NoonElNeswa collective, who thematise sexual harassment in murals. Moving beyond, he may have explored the efforts of Mahatat, an initiative led mainly by women, to give art a place in public space. He might have featured Aida Al-Kashef, a young, outspoken Filmmaker who was arrested with Ganzeer for putting up "Mask of Freedom" stickers in 2011- but is also an excellent filmmaker in her own right. He might have talked to Hanaa El Degham, a painter and muralist who lives between Berlin and Cairo, to gain her insight into Egyptian society. All these voices are lost to one instance of electronic music and reduce the film's value as a document.  

The third note is of the trips Ammar takes to upper Egypt. Even though, once again, the film treats us with beautiful pictures, we are never given enough background to fully understand those pictures in the context of the art war- Sufi Shrines, certainly an inspiration for the artist, and sun-boat ceremonies feel, except as a breath of air, out of place in the world Wilms creates for his audience. The revolution is hardly mentioned in these segments, nor are the events that happen within used to illustrate any discernible point- they are a welcome escape from Cairo, but that is where the film leaves them. 

Finally, the film feels very much like it was produced for a western audience, looking for highlights, heroes and inspiration, rather than political process and backgrounds in the Egyptian uprising. It simplifies the complexity of Egyptian society and discards many processes that have led some real changes in that society- which is partly due to the limits of the medium, but also owes a lot to the perspective of the authors. 

And maybe this is my main issue with the film- while it holds up well as a piece of entertainment to be consumed, enjoyed, then forgotten, it does not leave me with the satisfied feeling of having watched a finished piece of cinema. There are 120 hours of material available to the filmmaker. His film may benefit from an extra 15 minutes, which spread around the film, would add the much-needed context that so far eludes him. 

I watched it twice, thanks to some very peripheral involvement, and come out of it with this: If you are expecting a film that explores the contexts of the Egyptian Uprising of 2011 in depth and allows for new insights into a society on the brink of transformation and collapse, don't watch this one. If you are interested in the Cairo art scene, have an active engagement in graffiti, street art and electronic music, some background on the "Arab Spring" and are looking for an evenings entertainment, this may be the one for you. 

And here ends my highly subjective review of Art War. 

+ Thanks to Tieke and Fred for their input on the role of women in Egypt. Upon their suggestion, I added a paragraph on their lacking representation in the film

Now also on Scoopempire


Very well written, Caram! Thank you.
Thanks also for mentioning that to introduce Bosaina as the only female figure who is directing her messages towards the western world means to conceal heaps of powerful women artists who wear in the streets such as Mirah Shihadeh, Bahia Shehab,Hend Kheera and Hanaa El Degham – just to mention a few of them. This reinstalls the sad and false impression that revolution is manmade neglecting womens equal engagement.
Caram said…
Thanks ya Fred! That is pretty much what I was doing when your comment came in- several people reminded me that not to mention that point, lost somewhere in my notes, would be a great omission.
Sylvia said…
I have just found this article while researching female revolutionaries in Egypt after seeing Art War in Berlin because I am hoping to find a more fair perspective than the view of Bosaina as filmed by the director. At first I was skeptical of this artist and her westernization compared to martyrs and figures of the revolution but after more research I found that Bosaina in fact lives in Cairo still and is a member of the first electronic music collective in the country, also a school teacher of her own art school and comes from middle to upper class background which are all facts that are not covered in the film and maybe why she speaks english and not her native tongue. Like Hamed who speaks much German, I think they are both educated or visited foreign countries and this should not be a bad thing if their work is aimed at western audiences. Both of them have many recognitions from foreign audiences in their field and in countries like middle eastern ones this is how I think is best to get respect for what you do in your city, by becoming international in your work. I was very interested by this new information about Hamed and Bosaina especially with her because it revealed other sides of an artist and person that put her in unfair comparison to these women of the streets you mention and no artist should be compared at such. However a small society, she still deserves a right to perform and be free as she wishes and should not be judged for this. I wish the director had filmed more of this side of her life because his opinion is only on her sexuality which is the directors fault and biased and as I have discovered, she has great music and many great works in the country proving that at least in her community she is making a change. I have been to Cairo only twice, and went to different music concerts and they were not so interesting. If I had a chance to see an artist like Bosaina perform I would think she is really brave and that the music is not only interesting on local levels but also international which should make the egyptian people proud that they have artists like this who bring more democratic western liberties to a oppressed society. Just my thoughts
Caram said…
Hey Sylvia,

Thanks for going to the length of doing some background research on the people mentioned in the film and article!

While I agree and disagree with you on some points, it would be great if you could source your information to where you found it.
Sylvia said…
facebook ,

many google links one to another

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