The stirring title of Anna Roussillon‘s documentary is taken from an anthem constantly heard during the demonstrations that, in February 2011, eventually brought Hosni Mubarak‘s 30-year dictatorship to an end. But I Am The People is hardly an in-your-face, pro-revolution documentary à la The Square or Tahrir 2011: The Good, The Bad and the Politician. Set in an Egyptian village far from the bustle of Cairo, this two-hour documentary shows its interviewees fretting more about their irrigation systems and pregnant wives than ideological struggles and political emancipation.
Shunning the insurrection and intrigue unfolding in the capital, the French filmmaker has elected to cast her gaze on ordinary people instead. The result is a film which is probably more lasting in its legacy and more universal in its scope. While Egypt’s regression into authoritarian rule tears at the agit-prop optimism of the Tahrir Square documentaries, I Am The People may be seen years from now as a more in-depth, engaging and revealing document of how the masses could, and would, fluctuate between apathy and awakening amid political tumult.
Chronicle of a political awakening in the boondocks
Just as it depicts how tremors at the capital filter slowly into Egypt’s geographical margins, I Am The People has also enjoyed a protracted rise to prominence. After scooping up top prizes in less high-profile European festivals last fall, the film gathered more momentum recently with screenings at Rotterdam, a win in the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s documentary competition, a show at True/False festival and Visions du Réel, and finally a triumphant return to the filmmaker’s native country with its selection for the ACID program at Cannes.
The success of I Am The People stems mainly from Roussillon’s refusal to paint her protagonists as exotic country bumpkins. In a move designed possibly to debunk the viewer’s preconceptions, Roussillon begins her documentary by showing Harajjiye, the wife of her lead character Farraj Abdelwahid, protesting about being filmed; then, she teases Roussillon for her frail physique, saying how she’s so skeletal that she “could do an ad for Somalia”. A few minutes later, the couple’s children are seen watching television/. Their young daughter Marwa says the protesters who decide to immolate themselves at Tahrir Square should burn themselves up in the family kitchen to help her stoke the family’s broken oven.
So these are people who know what’s going on, but are too jaded to realize little changes in the center of Egypt could matter to them. Marwa, in this case, remains the stoic, ultra-realist prophet of doom. But not her father: while still mostly preoccupied with his everyday existence – setting up a flour-making workshop, attending to his wife’s pregnancy – he is also shown having his political consciousness piqued. His beliefs are gradually swayed, and his relationship with Roussillon – who grew up in Cairo and speaks fluent Arabic – is also put to the test as he berates the US and Europe for force-feeding a “flawed” and “self-interested” notion of democracy on a developing nation like Egypt.
With deft editing of the plentiful footage she has accumulated through frequents visits with Farraj’s family over three years, Roussillon has provided a vivid, alternative vision of life in Egypt beyond the mainstream media’s representation of the country during and after the Arab Spring. Then again, I Am The People is not merely a portrait of bitterness and ennui: the filmmaker have also teased out the comical aspect of all the furor and fatalism on display via moments of deadpan comedy playing out in this sad chronicle of a failed revolution. “I am the people… I prefer nothing to eternity,” the song goes; with this film, Roussillon has allowed her subjects to articulate their concerns and stake their claims to their “nothing.”
Production companies: Hautlesmains Productions, Narratio Films
Director: Anna Roussillon
Screenwriter: Anna Roussillon
Producers: Karim Aitouna, Thomas Micoulet, Malik Menai
Director of photography: Anna Roussillon
Editor: Saskia Berthod, Chantal Piquet
Sound designer: Jean-Charles Bastion
International Sales: Hautlesmains Productions
No rating; 111 minutes