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“Words of Witness” Captures The Ambiguity of The Egyptian Revolution

July 3, 2015

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Words of Witness, Mai Iskander’s compelling account of the aftermath of Egypt’s 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square that led to the resignation of 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak, is as a fascinating account of the cultural construction of knowledge and the mediatization of this process in the digital age.

That’s the beginning of my recently published review of what proved to be one of the best documentaries on the Egyptian revolution that I’ve seen. And I’ve seen many.

What I liked most about this film was that instead of trying to focus on the revolution as a whole, it focused on a particular person, journalist Heba Afify, and her efforts to make sense of what is going on and represent it in narrative form for her audiences.

The review continues:

The film focuses on Afify, a 22-year old journalist for the online English language edition of the independent newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, also known as Egypt Independent. Her life is filled with media: she reads news coverage online, watches television news reports, scans Facebook and Twitter posts, consumes a seemingly endless stream of text messages, and views YouTube videos. But Afify is also a constant producer of media: she maintains a carefully cultivated Facebook page, tweets her activities and whereabouts, sends text messages and uploads videos, in addition to the news stories she writes for her newspaper.

You can read the compete review here on the Anthropology Review Database.

Honestly, as I watched what I kept thinking of was not so much any of the accounts of the Egyptian Revolution that I’ve read, but Dominic Boyer’s The Life Informatic (Cornell UPress, 2013), in which Dominic argues news will continue to become imitative, as news media copy, transform and remediate one another’s content. Afify swims in rapidly moving currents of social media but though she relies on mimesis, she is never imitative in the ways that many of the German journalists Boyer describes are, or many US journalists.

It makes me realize that far from describing a forthcoming global uniformity, Dominic may be calling for a greater exploration of changing mimetic practices in journalism created by the rise of digital technology.

The film does cover post-Mubarak Egypt, of course:

Through Afify’s eyes we watch the ambiguous aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, from the occupation of Tahrir Square in early 2011, through Egypt’s chaotic year and a half under military rule, to the recent months of buildup to Egypt’s first free presidential election. Along the way, she covers the seizure by protesters of the Egyptian state security building, people missing and presumed to be held by the state, the protests by Copts over the burning of a church in the village of Atfeeh, the continuing sit-in in Tahrir and attacks on the protesters, the national referendum on elections, and the election which put President Mohammed Morsi in power.

Indeed, this is an excellent portrayal of the ongoing state of ambiguity in which Egypt finds itself as people try to understand the consequences of the revolution.

At one point, Afify says, “The worst case scenario is that we won’t go back to the way it was, but we won’t finish the job, the revolution will remain half-finished.”

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