The filtered ‘Noise of Cairo’
BY CHITRA KALYANI
Cairo: A protester waves a flag from a pole as a helicopter flies overhead. The image is etched in our minds, not simply from the revolution but from a time long ago: David aiming his slingshot at Goliath, man rising against machine, commoner raising a fist at the system.
The flag-waving protester also raises the curtain to German filmmaker Heiko Lange’s documentary “The Noise of Cairo – A Documentary about Cairo, Art, and the Revolution.” Enter into the salon with singer Shaimaa Shaalan who explains that previously, due to the education and culture in Egypt, “we were voiceless.”
In contrast, scenes from Tahrir taken by filmmaker Hani Eskander introduce the 18-day awakening in Egypt. Sounds from Tahrir emerge calling one to “raise our voices” (aali el-soot), and we are in the thick of hummed chants and raised slogans.
Lange, who has worked on experimental and music videos, has also worked for German television stations for 10 years. His documentary takes place after a pause, a few months following the uprising in June 2011. It launches into discussions with established or then emerging names in the arts scene.
Art has engulfed the streets in song and colors. Street artists express the immediate thrill of witnessing the dam broken. “There is a revolution in everything,” says artist Osama Moneim, “even in colors.” The opinion of the everyday man, the one that sits at an ahwa (coffee shop), too is consenting. “It is a big wall that collapsed in January.”
The exploration begins in the streets then moves into studios.
Early on in the film, the thought is set in motion by Townhouse Gallery Director William Wells of whether it is too early to produce art that can be said to reflect the revolution.
It is ironic then to conduct an interview with hooded (to protect anonymity) street-artist Keizer. Entering fame after the seismic events, Keizer has taken his moniker and ideas largely from names in the Western graffiti scene: Seizer and Banksy. Lange explains that he would have liked to have shown Ganzeer’s stencils but a scheduled interview with the Egyptian artist did not come through, and “this was the story only Ganzeer could have told.”
Interestingly, Ganzeer himself refuses to be called a street artist as he has been an artist long before the revolution or his foray into graffiti work.
Wells’ criticism that current art may not be reflective enough finds an echo among other artists like painter Khaled Hafez, who calls his early work “test paintings,” and dancer-choreographer Karima Mansour, who asserts that it is “too easy and too cheap to address the revolution” immediately.
It’s all valid criticism, which leads one to question where that places this documentary?
Lange responds to The Egypt Monocle by saying that “The Noise of Cairo” is a “mood snapshot” of the revolution. The director preempts any criticism that he could accurately represent Cairo, comparing himself to somebody that “came from Spain and made a film about Berlin Kreuzberg.” Rather than a commentator, Lange said, “I’m a filmmaker; I’m good at transporting atmospheres.”
It was the atmosphere of the revolution that drew him to Egypt. “My relationship is more towards … [the] people standing up.” The Berlin-based director flew to Cairo inspired by the uprising he witnessed on Al Jazeera. Yet while here, what was an emotional impulse succumbed to rational demands of filmmaking. Lange said he avoided the “dramatic and the emotional, and wanted to stay to the art scene.”
“Working in the parenthesis” of the art scene, Lange says, the aim was “not to celebrate art or to disregard it, but something in between.”
Dancer-choreographer Mansour says, “artists are feared because artists are loud.”
Which is perhaps also why among all the noises that define the city, Lange singles out the voice of artists. Rather than revolution, Mansour’s work expresses the “joy and exhaustion that is Cairo” simply “because that is what it does to you.” A scene from Mansour’s choreography displays this beautiful contradiction. Among a team of dancers, the focus is upon two performers dancing as if baring their fangs and nails. In one simple pose, their antagonism dissolves into dance, accurately portraying the drama in the humdrum life of Egypt, where fights may equally turn to friendships.
Voices are still seeking articulation post-revolution. Sondos Shabayek, director of the plays that comprised “Tahrir Monologues,” compares the revolution to a child learning to walk. While artist Hany Rashed experienced the new found freedom to photograph policemen on the street during the revolution, Shabayek says other topics — such as the army — were still taboo.
Other topics — such as the unchanging melody of some of singer Ramy Essam’s numbers — were outdated and no longer resonant. The drone of “Yasqut yasqut Hosni Mubarak” is ironically recycled to address the new regime. In a scene shot in Imbaba by Lange, Tahrir icon Essam sings “Ana mesh hassis be taghyeer” (I don’t feel the change). Neither do listeners.
Yet the revolution has produced a baby boom of artists that may as well be referred to as the Tahrir generation. An account of this may be seen in Safar Khan manager Sherwet Shafie’s observation that the outpouring of contemporary art is due to the artists’ reinvigorated self-belief.
“The role of the artist is the truth, to express yourself truly,” she says. Relieved of censorship, truthfulness is finally a position that an artist can adopt.
Khaled Hafez provides the most poignant accounts of the compromises he has made as an artist, where instead of confrontation, the belief was fostered that “art is intelligent to transcend censorship.”
Hafez speaks of the revolution as the achievement of the youth. Even his language reflects that the censorship went beyond actions, as if thoughts themselves were captive. “My generation is programmed [to believe] that change will never happen. We are not programmed to confront.”
For Hafez, “expression happened inside studios.” It is only after the revolution that the artist has undergone a metamorphosis. After years of having been an artist, Hafez who never participated in elections said he finally “enjoyed being a citizen as he approaches 48.”
Expressing anger and celebration, while speaking only to the articulate, the moods that remain to be captured in “The Noise of Cairo” are confusion and chaos. –The Egypt Monocle