The scenes of Egypt’s revolution—crowds chanting in Tahrir Square, army tanks in the streets—serve as a prelude to the agonizing story of Egypt’s disappeared, explored in Mai Iskander’s new documentary Words of Witness, part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York. As in the case of Argentina’s “dirty war,” the numbers of those activists and journalists imprisoned, tortured, and killed by Hosni Mubarak’s regime are huge (estimated at 30,000). Lesser known is the fact that these disappearances continued in the days after the revolution began, and that in many cases the military was responsible.

This is the sobering truth that Heba Afifi, a young Cairene journalist, sets out to document. Following Heba, Iskander takes us back to Tahrir Square, which during and immediately after the revolution was transformed into a sea of tents, with passersby and protesters passionately debating their country’s future, and displaying photographs of the loved ones they’d lost; in many cases, to an unknown fate.

I met with Iskander at Walter Reade Theater before a festival screening to discuss her film, her impressions of the political changes since Mubarak’s ouster, and her thoughts on Egypt’s presidential election.

—Ela Bittencourt for Guernica

Guernica: Were you in Egypt at the start of the revolution?

Mai Iskander: I wasn’t, but I go every year, so when I heard about the revolution I was already planning to go back. I was working with a production company in Egypt, wanting to focus on the stories of women. After my first film, Garbage Dreams, which had one strong female character, people were always asking me what the lives of women were like in Egypt. When the revolution started, I had already created a relationship with Birthmark Films, and they started shooting before I got there and finding women we could interview. I met Heba through Dina Harb.

If social medial was not a tool at the Egyptian peoples’ disposal, I do believe that they would have found other ways to come together.

G: Why did you decide to tell the story from Heba’s point of view?

I: There were so many amazing heroes of the revolution, and then there were the regular average citizens who became heroes, like Heba. I really wanted to make this movie so that the American audience could relate to it—Heba wasn’t a political activist before, but she’s so young, and she just got thrown into the political situation. She had started as a journalist only three months before the revolution began. So it’s her coming of age, and the nation’s coming of age. I thought that on one hand she would go against the stereotypes of Egyptian women, but at the same time she would be very relatable, because she is so cool, in her great outfits. Her mother is a fashion designer, so Heba has fashion in her blood.

G: Because of her, your film really operates on two revolutionary planes: the massive political awakening of Egyptians in the streets, and the personal, domestic rebellion that Heba stages to break out of the female stereotypes. There is a lot of humor in the latter part. Was it deliberate?

I: It would be hard to make a movie about Egypt without some humor, because Egyptians are known for it. Their jokes and funny stories are not only a source of entertainment but provide an outlet from the hardships they face.

I wouldn’t say I deliberately planned for Heba’s personal revolution to be humorous, but I do agree that there was some inherent humor. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that Heba finds a little delight in defying authority. It did allow me to treat the topic of women’s rights in a lighter way, but at the same time, I hope that audiences come away from the film asking some very critical questions about the women’s rights in general.

Guernica: There was also a bit of humor around the use of social networks. Heba coaches her “Mommy,” as she calls her mother, in how to use Facebook, and how to click “share” to post and divulge images. Can you talk about how technology changed the way Egyptians experienced the revolution?

I: Social media was one of the many catalysts of the uprising. It helped foster political consciousness by allowing people to overstep normal boundaries of gender and social class, bringing them into contact with new people and ideas, and encouraging them to be more outspoken about their opinions. The “We are All Khaled Said” Facebook page that posted pictures of the body of a 28-year old Egyptian man who was brutally killed at the hand of the police, became the biggest dissident Facebook page in Egypt, with more than 473,000 users. That was instrumental in spreading the word about the demonstrations in Egypt.

Social networking allowed the Egyptian people to organize more swiftly and to speak their minds, but the motivational factors behind the Egyptian revolution had been brewing for a while. If social medial was not a tool at the Egyptians people disposal, I do believe that they would have found other ways to come together.

G: One of the powerful scenes in your film shows people storming the State Security headquarters in Cairo, three weeks after Mubarak’s ouster, believing they may still find prisoners inside. They didn’t, but they found black bags with secret files. Can you talk about that night?

I: I wasn’t there, but Heba was. I think it was really exciting for her. A lot of people thought, however, that it was too easy for them to break in, and that the State Security had known that they were going to do it, so they had put all the important files away. There were so many rumors in Egypt. Some people said that what was left was the stuff that [the security] wanted people to find.

G: How much footage did you shoot, and how much was shot by others?

I: With the revolution footage, I shot probably half, and the rest of it was sourced. It was really cool to have a lot of this footage donated, because the people who were filming really wanted to get the word out about the revolution. Generally, the greatest thing about Egypt was that all of a sudden you would see amazing graffiti and hear amazing music, and you’d say to yourself, Where did this come from? How did people learn to do such amazing art? There hadn’t been any of that before. It was always traditional art. It was the same with the filmmakers: Egypt has an amazing film industry, and so many people went out and shot what was going on. It was really exciting to include that talent, and to work with people from Egypt.

G: You were with Heba in Tahir Square, when she interviewed families whose loved ones disappeared since the revolution. What was it like?

I: There were so many people. I was mostly focused on not bumping into people. I kind of have tunnel vision when I shoot. It’s so hectic.

G: I can imagine, the square was hectic even before. What chances for justice or truth do the families of the disappeared have, now that Mohammed Morsi has been elected President?

I: I don’t think that the President is going to change anything. In fact, right before it expired, the army reinstated the emergency law that had been in place under Mubarak, allowing a lot of citizens to be arrested and tried in a military court. [Writer’s note: On June 26th, Egypt’s court suspended the decree allowing military police to detain civilians.]

G: Peter Hessler wrote recently in The New Yorker that while women’s roles were stressed by The Muslim Brotherhood in their campaigns, women aren’t really included in Egypt’s politics. Do you see this changing?

I: I hope so. There has been a political and a cultural shift in Egypt. I hope that the cultural shift continues to include women. A lot of women were very politically involved during the revolution. They were at the front lines, not just as journalists, but also as protesters.

G: At the same time, the young, who possess such revolutionary fervor, are not organized enough to fill in the leadership gap.

I: I think they will eventually become organized. The National Democratic Party has the infrastructure and the backing of the army. The Muslim Brotherhood is really good at campaigning, through the mosques and the syndicates. They got a good number of seats in the Parliament, and have always had a stronghold, but since the time of the parliamentary election, and now the presidential election, they have actually had less backing. Fewer people voted for them in the presidential election, and their power seems to have dwindled in the last few months. I think that the President has an almost impossible task of pleasing everybody. The economy is in such a bad shape that the people will be dissatisfied with whoever is in power.

G: “Words of Witness,” the film’s title, brings us back to journalism. Heba finds it hard to report on events without getting involved. To what extent has her dilemma—reporting vs activism—also mirrored yours?

I: I think it’s always a challenge to remain removed from the stories that you are covering, because at the heart of all of them, there are real people with real struggles and emotion. As a journalist or a documentarian, you just do your best to present situations objectively, to pass the stories along to as many people as possible.

G: You are taking your film on a Rock the Vote screening tour throughout the United States. What lessons do you want young American voters to take away from Heba’s story, and from Egypt’s presidential election?

I: I want viewers to see that real, lasting change requires ongoing commitment and vigilance. Citizens must continually put pressure on their government to make sure that they are governing on the basis of human rights, equality and social justice. I hope that Words of Witness inspires audiences everywhere to reflect on the value of democracy, as well as the freedoms—and responsibilities—that come along with it.

To find a screening of Words of Witness, visit

Ela Bittencourt

Ela Bittencourt is a writer and cultural critic, reporting from New York and from São Paulo, Brazil. Her work appears regularly in Slant Magazine, The L Magazine and Reverse Shot, and in other publications. She holds an MFA in writing from Columbia University

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