Friday, August 8, 2014

The Revolution Has Been Filmed: Talking with Marco Wilms and Ganzeer about the documentary ART WAR

street artist Ganzeer (left) and director Marco Wilms (right) 
The documentary ART WARS made a recent appearance at the KINO Festival of German Films in New York City. Focusing on the explosion of street art that arose in Cairo during the 2011-2012 protests against then president Hosni Mubarak, it’s a film that was resonant and will continue to be so with various audiences for several reasons. Most prominently, it captures a vibrant graffiti scene, a modern form of artistic and social expression that has leveled playing fields and made for captivating exchanges of ideas from Five Points in Queens, New York to the Kaka’ako in Honolulu, Hawaii. Behind the images though is a firsthand account of the use of art, not only visual but across several mediums, to affect genuine change in the middle of a people’s upheaval. Those interested in a first hand account of revolution in action, as opposed to a distanced look back, will be fascinated too. 

In speaking with the film’s Berlin-based filmmaker Marco Wilms and one of its main protagonists, street artist Ganzeer, the world weary pair needed little prompting to get right into the thick of the documentary. Topics included an instance of street art being used to bring a murderer to justice, filming in the midst of turbulent riots, and the use of humor to criticize those in power throughout Egypt’s history.  

MondoCurry: How did you initially get into the the graffiti activity in Egypt? 

Marco Wilms: When I saw the pictures on TV in 2011, I was very impressed. I went through my own revolution back in 1989 in East Germany with the fall of the Berlin Wall. I thought it would be great to be part of next big movement in human history. I went to Tahrir Square to work on a script. But I never wrote a script, I just immediately began to shoot. Didn’t know it would take 2 and a half years at that moment. I didn’t have an exact idea, I just followed instinct and  what was exciting for me. I came to a point where I found this explosion of creativity among people. Actually, at the beginning they called the revolution in Egypt the ‘Laughing Revolution.’ Then it became completely the opposite. At that time, there were many people with funny signs and puppets. I followed the creativity. There were huge paintings on the street of pictures of donkeys as police officers and other things that were funny and disrespectful to the regime. Then, I think I saw a lot of graffiti in Tahrir Square. Then I met one graffiti artist after another, by accident actually. I think you knew Anwar before, didn't you?

Ganzeer: When you first started filming him, we did not know each other. I remember walking down the streets and seeing then seeing the graffiti for WANTED, for the search for the police sniper. And I remember thinking this is amazing! The first things to appear in Cairo were WANTED and then the guys with eye bandages. Before these two things, nobody else was doing graffiti. I was the only person doing any street art. So I saw these two things and was like ‘who is doing this?’  And later I came to meet Anwar and understood .

MC: This was a very powerful part of the film...

MW: It was very interesting to see how graffiti artist used graffiti to bring about justice. There was a police sniper who shot the eyes of people. One guy was filming it with a mobile phone. I think he was a hidden friend of the police. He said he was an actor but I’m not sure if it was true.

G: Yes, and the regime pulled some images of him from Facebook where he was wearing a police uniform for acting on a TV show. They said  ‘you’re impersonating a police officer. That’s a crime. And they charged him with ridiculous crimes.

MW: That’s why he called me. My friend called me and said do you want to meet this guy who shot the video and is everywhere on the news? So I said sure. They asked me a few times to meet him outside of Cairo. All my Egyptian friends said ‘don’t go, this is a trap.’ I didn’t go. After 3 days, they said he was downtown and said ‘can you come to this café downtown?’ So I thought okay maybe this is secure. I went and he gave me the video, and everything he said was true. Anwar had a screen shot and from the screen shot he painted the WANTED poster. It was the face of this police officer and people wanted to catch this guy. Actually he surrendered to the cops.

G: But they let him go.

MW: But he spent four months in jail. It was a little success, but really it was the first success where we could see how art can influence this kind of politics. Otherwise they wouldn’t have done anything.

MC: Was there a network of artists aware of each other from the beginning?

G: Not really. A lot of other people started to do street art but we didn’t necessarily know each other. You could say there was a chain reaction. Each week passed by and there was more street art being done by people. By the end of 20011 or mid 2012 there were so many people. But in early 2011 there was really nobody at all making any street art. If you were to visit Cairo toward the end of 2010, you would not find a single piece of street art anywhere. And then if you were to visit by the end of 2011 or mid 2012, it was unavoidable. There was just so much everywhere. But it wasn’t planned. We never sat down and discussed ideas. It was very organic and very disorganized. I guess later is when we began to meet each other and have some kind of consolidated efforts.

MW: 2012 was really like the peak. A lot of young people started making music and graffiti for their causes. There was this group of 15 young guys who were showing each other (Ganzeer's) tank, a very big piece of graffiti under a bridge, one of the most famous pieces of graffiti from the revolution. It’s destroyed now. It was alive for two years in different forms and shapes. So I asked who did this and they said I don’t know. So it was very funny, these guys taught themselves how to make graffiti. It really was a form of a youth movement. 

MC: Can you talk about the risks of filming in the middle of riots?

MW: The first time we went behind the lines, because I needed some shots of the military, we were running with the soldiers and filming them. Then the secret service caught me. They made me erase the material. I was lucky and they let me go. That’s the only thing that happened, just that once near the beginning. Then I became skillful at playing cat and mouse games. They never caught me again. At the end in 2013, maybe I felt too secure and went into the riots too often. Things had changed. (The soldiers) would run to each side of a street and start shooting immediately. It was like a trap. It was very dangerous. I could feel fire, and sometimes something going past my ear. Sometimes I heard ‘boom boom boom’ and you never know. Is it a gun? Is it tear gas? The last time they were shooting in the direction of the taxi we had gotten in. I think they shot three times. In the film, you can see it. These guys are on the corner. I had enough material this time.

G: When did Abdul start shooting? Was it before or after this?

MW: Before. I had some footage from an Egyptian activist, a very young and talented guy. He had a different attitude than me. He was not afraid to die so he ran right up to the front line. He got people yelling into the camera and amazing scenes of the activists.

MC: You focused on some artists whose ideas and means of expression don't fall in line with the majority of the protest graffiti, such as Bosaina. Can you talk about your decision top include her in the film?

MW: It was very hard to find a woman who had the level of creative output as my main protagonist. I was really searching for somebody. Then somebody introduced me to her. For me, it fits perfectly with the rest of the film because she is such an extreme fighter for individual freedom. It’s like she’s living in a bubble. She’s not a propaganda activist like the other artists. She’s a radical propagandist for personal freedom. She would go on stage with a very sexy costume. Even for this kind of nightclub, it was too much for the audience. It was good to have her in the film.

MC: Can you discuss what has influenced you as a visual artist? 

G: I grew up reading American comic books. That was my first and foremost influence. Later, I started to discover design. The broad history of graphic design is also a major influence on my work. In general I’m very much like a sponge. I pick up many things very easily.

MC: A lot of your work seems to encourage active interaction with those who encounter it. Is this something you plan to continue?

G: Yeah, this is something I’ve been discussing with other artists in Egypt. It’s very difficult to do anything now if you’re not pro Sisi, he being the military general now in power. Our strategy is to do really annoyingly supportive posters. They are going to be so over the top and so supportive of him that, even if you are a pro Sisi supporter you’d say, ‘oh come on this is ridiculous.’ That’s the only way you can do it. It’s hard because there are already many ridiculous things and products in the name of supporting him, like chocolate…It’s already too much for us so we have to challenge ourselves and say ‘how ridiculously supportive we can be?’ and see how that works.’

MC: There seems to be a lot of elements of sarcasm in the protest artists' to express their messages. Is this something that has occurs a lot in Egypt?

G: Yeah, for example one of the artists in the film was originally an art teacher at Oxford University. He would go on archaeological expeditions. He once showed me an amazing image of a papyrus that Ancient Egyptians had been distributing. The artist had made it to ridicule the pharaoh. It was so sarcastic and funny where basically they had the image of a mouse sitting on the throne. In front of him are people that are cats worshipping this mouse god. It’s sort of saying this is not who should be ruling; he is weaker than the people. Another thing is an inscription in one of the caves above the Hatshepsut temple. This was not official but like hidden things that workers did. There’s one where one where they have Hatshepsut’s advisor having intercourse with her from behind. The way she is just sitting around and meanwhile she is the queen…This kind of thing appears all throughout history.

MC: In ART WAR you follow diverse forms of artistic expression, but graffiti seemed most important. Was it tough to balance the films' focus?

MW: As a filmmaker I always notice visuals and music. I knew of Rami Essam and the Revoultion Records, a hip hop band. Because of the context of the film, I was obviously looking for political themes, and works that would give the film a poetic frame. I went to some offices and it was difficult to shoot because it was not so exciting. For me, the emotion I found on the street was completely different. In the graffiti and street art there was a lot of messages of idealism and sacrifice and this idea of starting a new society. So I decided to focus on that and let the graffiti artists talk about it. It was exciting to see during a two and a half year period how they developed their tools. Not only the graffiti tells the story, but then the people on the street tell the story. Then the press comes. The newspapers print the pictures of graffiti. Then the books come out and guys like me are making movie about it. All of that, as you can see in the movie, doesn’t exist anymore. It’s completely destroyed. But the film still exists and I think it will exist forever.

MC: Has ART WAR lead you to thinking about another film you'd like to pursue?

MW: Maybe I’ll do a film about Hamed Abdel-Samad, the writer in the film who wrote the book, Islamic Fascism.  He was actually kidnapped last winter. We worried he was going to be killed. Now he is back. I really want to do his biography. His father was an Imam. He read Faust and moved to Germany to study German philosophers and then he started a fatwa against radical Islam. At one point he ended up in a mental hospital. He has a very strong biography that reflects a life of conflict.

If references above left you with a desire get a fuller sense of the big picture, try to catch up with ART WAR.

Follow director Marco Wilms on twitter and facebook.

In New York City, Ganzeer will engage in a conversation on Egyptian Street Art held at Revolution Books New York August 12 at 7:00 PM.

Me on twitter = @mondocurry

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