Posts Tagged 'arab spring'

Too big for his garage

By Harry van Versendaal

In a recession-wracked city where one is constantly being told that the crisis is an opportunity to be taken advantage of, it is refreshing to actually meet someone who has succeeded, with little means but plenty of drive, to create something out of nothing.

In the span of just two years, blogger Manolis Andriotakis, has published a new book, created a weekly webcast presenting fresh publications and, most recently, launched an independent online channel called GarageTV. To top it all off, Andriotakis just finished a documentary – his third – about what has been one of the most useful tools in the process: Twitter. “#Followme. Exploring Twitter,” a 33-minute film on the pioneering microblogging website, features interviews with media experts and local tweeps, and which premiered at the 15th Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Speaking from a bare, soft-white lab overlooking the capital’s former entertainment mecca, Psyrri – now a scruffy, derelict neighborhood filled with empty shop fronts – Andriotakis, a cheerful, soft-spoken man in his late 30s, talks about his efforts to create a platform that will encompass all his concurrent interests and activities. “The big wager is to make all this financially sustainable. We are in the middle of a broad-scale redistribution of power with the Internet operating as a vehicle for change. I think that one of the biggest challenges that everyone, including those who still have a steady job, has to face is the need to adopt new sustainability models that do not rely on traditional channels of power,” he says during a break from a class on online video journalism that he is teaching. With Greece locked in its sixth year of recession and unemployment hovering well over 26 percent, it all makes perfect sense.

Born in downtown Athens, Andriotakis spent most of his childhood years in Kypseli, one of the capital’s densest and most congested neighborhoods. He and his wife moved to a suburb north of Athens a few years ago, mainly to find some peace and quiet. “The thing is I do need quiet,” he says. He recently published his seventh book, “I was Black and White,” a collection of sketches, texts and poems inspired by the Greek crisis. After turning his garage into a makeshift studio, he went on to launch “GarageBooks,” a weekly online program where he presented new books and interviews. More than a year and 44 shows later, “GarageBooks” is probably still the only book show out there but to his disappointment, it’s something that most local publishers do not seem to appreciate. Andriotakis, who depends on translation and video work to make a living, still needs to dig into his own pockets for most of the preview copies. He and the growing number of people behind the new channel are looking for ways to make the project sustainable without giving in to online ads and product placement.

“Sure, you need to support yourself. However, I am trying to do this without compromising my values. That is very important to me. I want to be flexible, but it is very important. It’s a more difficult path, but it is more in line with what we are going through. If it does not work, I am always willing to re-examine my options,” he says. He knows that some critics will always be waiting around the corner. But he remains optimistic, and there are already signs that it will become sustainable.

Andriotakis was still working for Eleftherotypia newspaper when he started to blog in 2004. He logged on to Twitter five years later. The move from blogging to microblogging came naturally, he says. But it came at a price. As with most bloggers, Twitter took his time and energy away from lengthier, more analytical blog posts. “But it was also a more interesting place to be in,” he says.

Twitter, as well as Facebook, are always open on his computer screen. His interpretation of them is utilitarian, almost technocratic. “They are tools for achieving objectives,” he says, adding that he uses them selectively, taking advantage of the strengths of each service. But he makes no secret of his preferences. “Twitter is more dynamic, more direct, but also more demanding. Its 140-character limit means that you have to be laconic, but that is also its comparative advantage because it forces you to be more precise,” he says. “Twitter is also more versatile. It is more receptive to social change, to the entrance of new users,” he says, with recent data showing the San Francisco-based network has surpassed half a billion members – about a third of the active global Internet population.

We are introduced to a tiny yet diverse sample of these users in “#Followme.” In the film, Andriotakis discusses how Twitter has changed human interaction with Greek twitterati, as well as with renowned cyber-skeptic Evgeny Morozov, tech writer Jeff Jarvis, former Public Order Minister Michalis Chrysochoidis, and a self-styled anarchist troll sporting a dragon’s head mask. One of the first things he did when he started shooting was to have some of them meet offline in the same room. It didn’t work. “Interaction among them left a lot to be desired. Offline communication follows very different rules,” he says.

Most studies suggest Twitter is not a reliable indicator of public opinion. But does that mean it is an overrated, deceptive microcosm? Or can it not become more than the sum of its parts? Does it not, as many techno-optimists would like us to believe, have the power to mobilize toward a superior, offline end? “#Followme” inevitably discusses the role of digital technologies in propping up popular protest movements – a view made popular after pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. “I used to think that Twitter is value-neutral. But it seems like I was wrong,” Andriotakis says. He quotes a metaphor first used by Morozov, author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom,” who compares the Internet with a car on an icy road. No matter how good your brakes are, he says, the car will not stop. What counts most, Andriotakis says, is the conditions in which you act and react. “Twitter has a democratizing, liberalizing potential but it really depends a lot on the overall level of media literacy, on how educated and well-trained people are,” he says.

Such concerns are clearly reflected in the issue of online etiquette. With commenters able to hide behind a veil of anonymity, Twitter and other online forums habitually degenerate into arenas of vitriol and hate. For Andriotakis, withholding your identity on the public domain defeats the purpose. “You should by no means ban anonymity, but you should not encourage it either. There is great benefit from being public. Sure, there are risks, but living in constant fear and mistrust will get you nowhere. Putting an issue out in public gives you, or perhaps somebody else, a better chance to deal with it,” he says. Andriotakis, who produced a documentary about the safety threat posed by illegal billboards along Greece’s highways, says the grassroots campaign for their removal, which included road accident victims and their families, would never have been as successful if it had been anonymous.

While some Internet users choose to disguise their identity, others work extra hard to feed and promote it. Several studies have established a link between social media and socially aggressive narcissism. Skeptics say narcissists have simply found a new outlet to vent their inflated egos. “We all want to be loved, we all want to be noticed and to be attractive. Make no mistake, we are interacting in the midst of an attention industry and we are naturally acting a bit like children, always seeking a bit of attention. But you should at least try to draw attention in a way that is true to yourself – even if it sometimes comes out a bit angry or nervous.”

@andriotakis for one, does.

Egyptian revolution: Download at 50 percent

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s night and small group of friends are sitting inside a living room. The shades are closed but the lights are off. Outside, a group of men wielding knives and clubs are coming down the street shouting slogans. “It’s the f***ing thugs,” a voice says as a small HD camera rolls. It’s the first few days of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, and nobody really has a clear idea of what is going on.

Filmmakers Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American, and Omar Shargawi, a Dane, got a chance to film the dream of a lifetime as the Egyptian capital was swept by protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with consumer HD and phone cameras, the two activist friends shift the focus back and forth between the violence in and around Tahrir Square and the heated conversations inside the downtown apartment, covering 11 days of the revolution.

Shot at a high-speed pace, with shaky footage (that may put off some older viewers) and claustrophobic close-up shots and augmented with a dramatic score, the end result is a diary-like, action-packed verite personal documentary that will keep you on the end of your seat. With no choice due to the escalating violence, the filmmakers flee the country together with El Hakim’s wife and child, leaving both the revolution and the project unfinished. “Half Revolution,” which draws on some 120 hours of footage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

El Hakim, a tall man with unruly curls and sporting a leather jacket, was in Thessaloniki for the promotion of the film, which was screened at the coastal city’s documentary festival this week. Born in Palo Alto, California, he moved between the United States and Egypt for years, until ultimately settling in Cairo a decade ago, largely prompted by the anti-Arab backlash after 9/11. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about those “11 life-changing days” and shared his thoughts about the prospects of this “half revolution.”

What were you doing when the whole thing started?

We were working on a feature film directed by Omar, set in Cairo and loosely based on the Book of Job. It’s about an Egyptian-Danish man who comes back to Cairo and the second he sets foot in the country his whole life is turned upside down. The man blames God for his troubles, he turns his back on him and sees what living without God means. You’ll definitely hear about it soon.

Are you religious?

Not particularly. I actually come from a very Sufi background, but strict religion is not something I believe in. I think everybody has their own religion in a sense.

When did you consciously decide to go beyond coverage of events and make yourselves the subjects of the movie?

We started by trying to capture things happening on the street. We were shooting stuff in the street and then shooting stuff at home, mostly conversations, because there was nothing else to do. Then on January 25 we got arrested at around 1.30 in the morning in Tahrir Square as the police really brutally attacked the people; a lot of people were shot and a lot of people died that night. We got beaten up by a hundred guys, thrown in a box, we were separated, sort of reunited in the box, then taken to a prison. We were released at around 4 a.m. because we played dumb — we pretended we were foreign tourists and they let us go. That traumatic experience made us realize that even though there was stuff happening around us, there was also stuff happening to us and we wanted to capture that. And we realized the best way to tell the story was through the frame of reference of characters and that we were, in fact, the characters. So the film became a kind of autobiographical account of what we were going through. We didn’t use any historical clips, or YouTube clips. It’s not the history of the revolution. It’s not a history lesson.

You must have tons of material.

Yes, we have around 120 hours of material. We had three to four cameras going and everybody was filming as much as they could.

What did you shoot with?

Just small consumer HD cameras. I even shot with an iPhone.

Did you have any of your material confiscated?

Actually, the night we were arrested, Omar tried to film inside the police truck and a policeman took the chip out of his phone. So we did lose some important material that night, but we were were able to patch up the storytelling. In the end, we were lucky to get out with all the footage. [At the airport] I had to hide some of the stuff in my son’s diapers. We were very scared about getting caught, because we heard of other journalists getting caught. I even cut my hair, really short and boring, wore really boring clothes, pretending to be an English teacher. Having a baby of course helped.

Where did you fly to?

We went to Paris, where my uncle and cousins live. We stayed there for three months until the dust settled and then went back to Cairo.

Were you or anyone else hurt during the protests?

I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet; luckily it missed my eye by about half an inch. And on the night we were arrested, I was beaten up pretty badly. Otherwise I was pretty lucky. We missed some bullets that flew very close to us.

Where exactly do you live in Cairo?

I live right downtown, two blocks from Talaat Harb Square and four blocks from Tahrir.

What was the situation like in other neighborhoods? At some point your wife says she’s off to [the more affluent residential district of] Zamalek to get some milk for the baby.

Zamalek is like an island in the middle of the Nile. It is more upscale and was actually a safer zone to be in. There were not many protests happening in Zamalek. Life did go on in certain parts of the city. Downtown was really the battlefield.

Did you use Twitter or any other social media?

I actually started using Twitter once they turned the Internet back on, but I did not have a smartphone. Some of my friends used [BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service] PBM to communicate and to mobilize and to warn each other where not to go to avoid the police. But when they cut the Internet everybody went out on the street to find out what was happening. And then, when they turned it back on, the crowd thinned as a lot of people left to upload their clips. It’s ironic. [The authorities] used it as a weapon to manipulate the crowds, so relying on that kind of stuff was useful but it cannot ever replace actually being there.

We don’t see any journalists from the mainstream media in your film.

They were not really part of our reality. I didn’t see many journalists in the street, most of the journalists were sitting at five-star hotels shooting from their balconies. We did try to get in touch with people to upload these clips but we couldn’t find them, they were too busy or got arrested.

Is it more dangerous for you now that you’ve made the movie?

I guess I’m waiting for that knock on the door. But it hasn’t happened yet. And I think part of the reason why it hasn’t happened is that in Egypt they are really not concerned with what is shown outside of the country. They are more concerned about what is shown inside the country. So as it’s shown in Cairo for the premiere there will probably be reactions to it.

Where do you see things going from here? Do you see a fresh showdown with the army?

There are daily showdowns with the army now. Some are violent, some are not, but I think ultimately it is sort of the beginning of the end of their completely privileged place. I think that they will have to compromise with the people and work with the Brotherhood. To what extent, we will have to see. Many people believe the Brotherhood have made a deal with the army allowing them to take power on the condition that the army is not reformed — which is an empty wish. Because things are not going to go back to the way they were. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has always been an illegal party, so in a sense what the revolution has done is take them out of the shadows, put them into the light and legalize them; and there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. They have a lot of cleaning up to do. All these institutions that are rotten to the core, they have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if they don’t do anything, they will feel it in the polls. This pressure is not going to go away. Something has woken up in people and it’s like the veil has been lifted from the eyes of the regular Egyptian. He has realized he has been living under a military dictatorship for 60 years and this was something they did not even really understand. Something has to change, hopefully for the better.

Were you surprised at it all?

I think the army really was trying to fend off a real revolution. It’s clear to me now in retrospect that on day three of the uprising, when the army went into town and basically styled themselves as the saviors of the revolution, that they were in fact trying to position themselves in a positive light by basically getting rid of Mubarak. It’s really difficult to invest in the military. In a sense we can only hope for the best and hope that the Brotherhood and the army will start to have some friction. They are certainly not the best of friends. But they have a common enemy, which is revolution, which is democracy. Neither of these groups is democratic, neither of these groups is liberal. They are both very conservative so at the moment we are seeing this counter-revolution being waged against the liberals and the youth parties and the workers’ parties to try to discredit the revolution and take people out of the game. It’s a real tense and fragile moment, but what is clear is that the military is up to a lot of dirty tricks. They are playing mind games, trying to confuse people. You need to influence the minds of the so-called couch party, the silent majority who only get news from state TV and terrestrial television, who don’t watch Al Jazeera, don’t have Internet, and only read government papers. And I think our film does the same on the international stage. I’ve been trying to spread the word through this film that the revolution is not over. A lot of people, especially in America and Europe, think, “Hey, the dictator is gone, the revolution is over, you must be so happy, everything is cool.” But it’s not. We’re only halfway done, maybe even less than halfway done.

Yasser Alwan: Photographer with a cause

By Harry van Versendaal

I like getting lost. It’s the best way to really get to know a city,” explained Yasser Alwan as he arrived outside a Thessaloniki bar some 30 minutes after our agreed time. After 17 years in Cairo, the 47-year-old photographer certainly knows the streets of the Egyptian metropolis as well as any homegrown resident.

Born in Nigeria to Iraqi parents, Alwan told me he lived in Lebanon and Iraq before moving with his parents to New York in the early 1970s. His Iraqi-American background was “volatile enough” for him to decide to leave the US in 1992. He said he hadn’t been back since.

Standing in the tradition of documentary art photography, Alwan was in Greece this weekend for the inauguration of “Facing Mirrors,” an exhibition of 130 portraits at the northern port city’s Museum of Photography that is also showcasing works by Middle East artists Gilbert Hage, Youssef Nabil, Hrair Sarkissian and Raed Yassin.

During a panel discussion in Thessaloniki, Alwan, an outspoken critic of the Mubarak regime who played an active role in the January uprisings, responded to questions about his work and political developments in Egypt. Here is an excerpt of the discussion.

My images are as artless as possible. Yes, I think about balance and composition. But what I am mostly interested in is honest human contact. I am not interested in spectacle or a visual experience. I am interested in an all-round experience and in celebrating the people I take photographs of.

It’s probably the most produced item in the world today, and it’s the easiest thing to make: a picture. Of, course, it is also the easiest thing to delete. Any picture made for public space — all the print media, television and the Internet — has a life of 24 hours; and then the next day comes and new images are needed. Images made for public use are made in the millions daily. How possible is it to make images that convey more than just a blink of an eye view of the world? I think it’s impossible.

In the days of painting portraiture, when a painter would have a subject sit for him maybe days or weeks, there was a relationship that was established. A painter would come to know a person because of a connection between eye, brain, spine, hand, canvas — and then the connection back to the person, and that connection was happening hundreds of times during a particular sitting. But photography sort of eliminated that necessity. I think photography brought about a change in consciousness.

I have an ethical obligation when I make a portrait of someone, which is to convey something of the truth. And the only way that I feel I can do that is if I spend time with the people, with that environment. I would like you to believe that my photographs from Tahrir are more real [than those that appeared on the media]. I understand that all images are constructed regardless of whether you believe they are more real or not. But I do want to get across that my pictures are more real and more honest. That does not make the art go away. But part of the art is to get you to suspend your disbelief.

Egyptians react quite forcefully to my work, but usually in a negative way. The pictures hurt them but that is absolutely not my intention.

Portraits require a sense of social mobility. Historically, the people who had portraits made of themselves were people who were moving up in the world or who were already at the very top by birth. Ordinary people had no portraits except for minor examples from the beginning of the history of portraiture 5,000-6,000 years ago.

Each person is different. Sometimes I make a picture of someone in an hour and it turns out well, and sometimes I try for months and it never works. Photographing in the streets in Cairo is extremely difficult. You have to remember we live in a police state. I have been in jail many times; I have been taken to the State Security Headquarters just for taking pictures. So the environment is not a comfortable one for a photographer like myself to work in. The state is terrified of images like mine. They don’t want such images to be seen by the population of Egypt because they have a vested interest in controlling the image. Ninety-nine percent of the images that you see of Egypt are the Nile and the Pyramids, Luxor and Aswan — by design. It’s been a very difficult way of working, but it’s the only way of working: that is, to get people to overcome their own fears and prejudices about what a picture is.

I’ve been stopped by the police at least a hundred times in Egypt over the last 17 years. Also people will immediately accuse me of being a spy, I am a foreigner, I don’t speak the Egyptian dialect like an Egyptian. If I don’t manage the situation well it can turn into 15 people taking me by the arms to a police station.

[Women are] an invisibility that I’ve reproduced. Most unfortunately. It is part of the culture that I’ve swallowed myself. It’s something that I am dying to do. I’ve tried to work with women’s organizations to be able to gain access to women, it’s been very difficult for me to photograph the ordinary average nobody who is a woman. I am very able to photograph the upper classes and I have. But the ordinary average woman is much more sensitive about her image and it would take somebody much smarter than myself or a woman photographer.

Religion doesn’t come into play at all in my work. I’m working on a project about the Coptic community in Egypt. It’s an extremely sensitive issue, but that’s where my interest would be, rather than Islam.

I’d like to use the momentous events of January-February 2011 in Tahrir Square. I’ve lived in Egypt for 17 years and I’ve been going to Egypt for 25 and it was beyond my imagination to believe that what happened did happen. The uprising brought the social media to the fore. Videos and photographs that ordinary people have been making on their mobile telephones have been put on the Internet, they are being gathered by the American University in Cairo, which is trying to compile an archive of images, sound and video of the revolution. We have not removed the system. But that’s coming, inshallah. However, there has been a public space that has been carved out in Egypt and that public space is not going to be given up. Graffiti, and most of the graffiti is politically oriented, and some of it very refined, is throughout the streets of Cairo. The Ministry of Interior is now buying paint by the ton and as soon as the graffiti is done they have troops of people to paint over it.

I predict we are going to have another confrontation, hopefully sooner rather than later, but no more than two years from now. And it will be bloody.


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