Back to the Square: Talking Egypt’s Revolution One Year Later With Petr Lom and Mark Nabil

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The reason why we may have identified so deeply with the revolutions of the Arab Spring this past year, seems to be the protesters unfaltering courage. This year’s recipient of the Olof Palme Prize, Gomorrah‘s author in hiding Roberto Saviano asked this rhetorical question when I interviewed him recently: “Where is the man who risks his life every day in today’s world?” Well, since December of 2010, that man has been personified by the demonstrators of the Arab revolutions.

Now more than a year has gone by since the first unrest in Egypt’s Tahrir Square and our attention span has dwindled, turned to more visible media headlines like Syria’s issues and the global economy. Yet the unrest continues in many parts of the Arab world and in his latest documentary, filmmaker Petr Lom reconvenes at Tahrir Square, going back with five individuals who helped shape the revolution with their personal stories. The resulting Back to the Square is at once haunting and eye-opening and is filmed in a crisp, clear manner that makes for great viewing while also enlightening its audience to the present truths of Egypt. The film was just awarded Jury Prize at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and has been on a winning streak since premiering at the International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this year.

I caught up with Lom and Mark Nabil recently to ask them a few questions about this “new Egypt” which, at the moment, seems to be just like the former corrupt version of itself but with control transferred to the military. Mark Nabil is one of the five people featured in Back to the Square, and the brother of imprisoned-then-freed blogger Maikel Nabil. Maikel Nabil was one of the first people arrested after Mubarak’s regime fell, for criticizing the military and drawing light to the contrast between Israel’s freedom of expression and the lack of this basic human right in the Arab world. Maikel Nabil represents the most unavoidable proof that Egypt still has a long road ahead on its journey to democracy and we should all be watching its progress very carefully.

E. Nina Rothe: Why do you think “freedom” is such an important word in today’s world?

Petr Lom: Everyone has the right to have their dignity respected, everyone has a right to live free from cruelty and free from fear. I don’t think these words are any less or more important than they always have been. The only difference now is that with the spread of information technology, people can be much more quickly aware of the injustice going on around them.

ENR: Is the perfect revolution a Utopian principle? Can what the people of Egypt want truly be achieved, in little more than a year?

Mark Nabil: Of course it started from idealism. We didn’t want to get rid of just Mubarak, but the entire corrupt system that robbed the country for about 30 years. He kept reappointing himself and was about to hand over power to his son. The people wanted to get rid of that entire system. Many Egyptians live in abject poverty, thanks to that system. The revolution started in the hope of getting rid of that.

It’s hard to give a timeline of how long it will take to accomplish our goals. When we first started demonstrating in Tahrir Square, other Egyptians didn’t realize we were against the regime, because the TV channels were not reporting truthfully on the protest movement, depicting us in a very bad light. They said we were trying to destroy the country. Only now are the majority of Egyptians starting to understand why we were protesting against the regime.

ENR: Why a film about the Egyptian revolution and not, say, the Tunisian uprising or the Libyan rebels?

Petr Lom: I made a film about Iran’s President Ahmadinejad in 2009, called Letters to the President (screened on HBO in the U.S.). A co-producer suggested I contact Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei — the Nobel Prize winning head of the UN Nuclear Inspection Agency who was speaking about reforming Egyptian politics already in early 2010. I had access to him, and was planning to make a film about him when the Egyptian revolution erupted. I traveled to Egypt right away at the beginning of the revolution. The focus of my film shifted from ElBaradei when I arrived in Egypt, because I realized that I was more interested in the fates of ordinary people, people whose stories and fates are ignored.

I also chose Egypt because it is the biggest country in the Middle East, and I believe the most important country in the region — certainly geo-politically.

I am always interested in stories of injustice and what has been happening in Egypt over this past year has been enough to both break my heart — when hearing about the countless stories of people being abused by the State — and at the same time, it has also been tremendously inspiring to witness such extraordinary courage by so many people willing to speak out about injustice. My background pushes me into the direction of caring about freedom and injustice, both personally — my family were Czech refugees from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 — and professionally. Prior to becoming a filmmaker, I used to be a professor of political philosophy, so my past professional life was all about teaching about justice and human rights.

ENR: How has the principle of the Egyptian revolution changed from January of last year to today?

Mark Nabil: Last year the people went to the street to get rid of Mubarak, but that changed through the year, because the army took over the power of the country. The Egyptian people want the government to be democratic and the army is working together with the Muslim Brotherhood to create the new government, which the people don’t want. That wasn’t the point of the revolution. For example during the anniversary last January 25, the Muslim Brotherhood had a stand in the middle of Tahrir Square and they would broadcast passages from the Koran every time when the protestors chanted against the army or the Brotherhood to drown out their voices.

The lawsuit against Mubarak is like theater (a play), he’s still very much involved in controlling the army from his sick-bed. He’s still ruling the country, from the sidelines. Nothing has changed since Mubarak’s fall because the army snipers who killed protesters during the revolution are set free and we have accomplished none of our goals.

Petr Lom: I don’t think that one should expect perfection. But one should expect basic decency, a state that pledges political transparency and accountability, that governs according to the rule of law, a state that protects its citizens from cruelty, does not prey upon them, and a state that respects peoples basic dignity. And that has simply not happened. How is it possible that one year after the revolution there is only ONE policeman (tried in absentia — and so not behind bars) who has been sentenced for his involvement in the murder of more than a 1,000 protesters during the revolution? How is this possible? And why is this not international headline news?

Image from Back to the Square courtesy of the filmmakers, used with permission

E. Nina Rothe is a writer and avid world traveler who was born in Florence, Italy and is currently based in New York City, US. She has contributed articles on world cinema and culture to various media outlets including Bespoke, Chic Today, elan, EGO, Tehelka and AVS TV. She has also been an on-air reporter covering film festivals including Toronto, New York’s Tribeca Film Festival, and Doha TFF, plus NY Fashion Week, all the while interviewing Bollywood and Hollywood personalities. Nina currently writes for the Huffington Post US and Tatler Homes Singapore. Her passion is cinema with a conscience.

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