By Rebecca Harkins-Cross
Photo from Words of Witness, film about Egypt's Revolution and Social Media

Human rights can be a difficult topic. At Right Now we understand that there are grey areas, that these issues provoke discussion – there isn’t always a clear answer. So we aim to create places where we can talk about this, sometimes with people from different walks of life to us. Our work is underpinned by an understanding of the importance of a human rights framework, but we are curious about fresh perspectives and are willing to have informed debates. For this reason, creative responses to human rights themes are especially important to us. Art is often a wonderful way to broach difficult topics – it has the power to engage the heart and the mind, particularly at moments when arguments simply seem to entrench long-held beliefs.

In light of this, Right Now have collaborated with HRAFF to commission essays responding to the issues raised by two films, Words of Witness and High Tech, Low Life.

Read David Donaldson’s essay on High Tech Low Life.

More of Right Now’s coverage of HRAFF.

By Rebecca Harkins-Cross

On January 25 2011, citizens from across Egypt united to change the course of history. Following on from neighbouring Tunisia, Egypt became the second country to revolt against their authoritarian government in what became known as the Arab Spring. A campaign of non-violent civil resistance began to overthrow dictator Hosni Mubarak and his regime, who had been serving as the country’s president for 30 years and under whose rule human rights abuses including police brutality, torture, corruption in governmental elections, and censorship of both citizens and the press were routine. Egypt’s youth were at the forefront of the revolution, mobilising demonstrators through social media, which eventually resulted in Mubarak being ousted on February 11. History is rarely changed without bloodshed, however, with at least 846 being killed and 6,000 injured during the protests.

Egyptian-American filmmaker Mai Iskander’s documentary Words of Witness (2012) examines Cairo in the weeks after Mubarak’s expulsion, through the eyes of 22-year-old journalist Heba Afify. Afify works as a reporter for independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, covering many of the events in Tahrir Square. Her career began at the most momentous juncture in her nation’s recent history, which, moreover, was the first time since Mubarak’s inauguration 30 years prior that journalists could report freely. “I never felt that this is my country or that I’d care for it. I didn’t feel that these streets were mine,” says one young female protestor. “This totally changed after the revolution. I feel that this is my country, and I’m the one to change it.”

This is the second film from Iskander, whose debut Garbage Dreams (2009) won 26 international awards and was nominated for the Best Documentary by the Director’s Guild of America in 2010. Taking four years to produce, Garbage Dreams follows three teenage boys growing up in the largest garbage village in Egypt, home to 60,000 people who collect and recycle garbage as a means of economic subsistence. Garbage Dreams used Egypt’s youth to examine the way the country was changing, revealing the kind of poverty that inflamed people’s desire for change ­– a position from where Words of Witness takes off. The story of Afify’s youthful idealism coming into conflict with the values of an older Egypt represents a microcosm of what’s happening nationally.

Words of Witness also explores the changing way journalism is practiced in Egypt. Afify is alerted to protests via social media, as well as using it to extend her reach – she tweets rally cries for upcoming demonstrations or posts video testimonials from citizens on her Facebook. While social media is here employed as a tool for social change, enabling the democratisation of news and its dissemination, it also reveals the way traditional media and citizen journalism are converging. The methods Afify uses to report on the street (such as recording videos and taking photographs on her phone and uploading directly onto social media and blogs) had in the past been an activist, guerrilla activity performed by amateurs trying to report information that mainstream media were omitting. Here a national newspaper, albeit an independent one, is using the same techniques – allowing them to break news as it’s happening on the ground and facilitate the public’s interaction – while still having the resources of a newspaper at their disposal, as well as the editors and fact-checkers required for credibility.

This confluence of the citizen and the professional journalist, however, is often perilous for Afify herself: she is caught between the objectivity required by her job and her personal investment in the movement. It is seeing Afify reporting in the field that is perhaps the documentary’s greatest strength, revealing first-hand the mood on the ground at that time. People jostle to tell Afify their stories, speaking of horrific torture, executed family members or the agonising unknown of those still detained. Iskander captures the shift from hope to trepidation and anger in the weeks following Mubarak’s ousting; many worry he’s secretly still in power, or that the army, who seem to be turning against the people and increasing their own authority, have hijacked the revolution.

When the referendum finally occurs, 57 per cent vote yes for a new president to be elected in the coming months. “We are entering a very ambiguous and very scary period,” says Afify. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. We’re stumbling, we’re taking some wrong steps, but the underlying sense of unity and solidarity, I don’t think this is something that can wear off easily.” A short epilogue shows the current state of Egypt, the army removing many of President’s governmental powers before Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood was voted in; many express fears that things will remain the same.

For Afify, however, the personal change is irreversible. “My mother needs to understand that the rules that were broken during the revolution will remain broken,” she says determinedly.

Watch a trailer of Words of Witness.

Buy a ticket to Words of Witness at HRAFF: 6:30PM, Wed 15 May ACMI Cinemas.


Review – Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia

By Georgia Cerni

Sophie Cousins’ book Renewal: Five Paths to a Fairer Australia is, in many respects, a proposal. For Cousins, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided Australians with an opportunity to reconsider the ways our society currently functions. Cousins aptly makes her case – while in some ways the pandemic reinforced burgeoning inequalities, it also presented us the chance to apply collectivist values to solve systemic problems.