Media coverage for the Arab Spring has slowed down in recent months, but that doesn't mean things in the Middle East have settled down. Egypt, for example, is facing election woes, and the President they toppled more than a year ago has just been given a verdict for his various crimes.
And so we look back to the beginnings of the Egyptian revolution, as “Tahrir: Liberation Square” opens in limited release this week. The film, a verite account of the protests leading up to the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, is a strong account of those tumultuous weeks, refusing to budge from the eponymous location as citizens call for a better tomorrow. It’s a captivating, highly focused documentary, a true pearl amongst similarly themed political/social-issue documentaries.
Prolific filmmaker Stefano Savona is behind the project (if you haven’t heard of him yet, you will), and we were able to discuss ‘Tahrir’ with him as well as his upcoming projects, the state of Egypt, his place as an Italian telling a Middle Eastern story, and even his opinions on Michael Moore flicks. “Tahrir: Liberation Square” is now playing at the Maysles Cinema in New York City.
Yes, I have never been so productive in my life. (laughs) It's a bit of a coincidence because one was doing the war in Gaza and was just like a witness of those days, a very particular movie. The following two, one is a project I've been working on for four years and it was simply finished in 2011, and Tahrir was a kind of an adventure that ended up as a movie. But usually I take much more time to make a movie.
My question is, how did you juggle all of these? You must have been shooting one, editing another...
The problem is that it's so difficult to finance the movies. The only way I can finance these things is by working on them, finding enough material to apply for some money from television or from the National Institute of Cinema here in France. Some of them never end up as a movie because I either can't finance them or the subject loses my interest and so on and so forth. Because of this, I used to do many projects at the same time and when I would feel that one of them is ready to be finished, so I get into it and finish it.
Yup. But sometimes if they don't become a movie they can be used for other things. There is a very long project I have where I've been shooting over two hundred interviews with very old people in Sicily, about 85 to 105 years old, and I've been doing it for two years. Eventually I will try to make some movies out of these archives, but even if I don't get a movie out of it and it just stays as an archival thing or video installation, that's okay for me.
Given all of the countries participating in the Arab Spring, why did you specifically choose to document Egypt?
Before being a filmmaker, I worked in Egypt about twenty years ago. I felt that one day I should make a movie there, but I never could figure out what. I went back almost every year, and when the revolution began, I just had to go. I thought this was the moment where my relationship with Egypt makes sense, finally, for a movie. But in a way, it might have been Tunisia because I am Sicilian so I am near there, and I actually set my first movie in that country about 10 years ago. But my relationship with Egypt is special, so it had to be there.
Everybody in the square was almost refusing to believe in any alternative other than Mubarak leaving, and I understood that the second I got there. Very often I had been asking political questions for years, and I never received any answer in front of the camera, but at that moment in the square, everybody wanted to speak about politics in front of the camera! Nobody was afraid anymore, and everybody was banking on toppling Mubarak because otherwise they wouldn't be able to get back home.
While shooting, were you thinking of other documentaries to model this one after?
I didn't really have the time to prepare for this one because I decided to leave the following day, but of course all of the films I saw in the previous years had influenced me. When I was in the square, the very first movie that came to mind was the Maysles "Gimme Shelter." I had watched it very recently, so I told my girlfriend (who was eventually there and the editor of the movie) to keep watching movies about the music and concerts in the '70s because it's the kind of atmosphere that we had to render. Some direct cinema, and the work of William Klein, May 68 in France, or even the work on "Muhammad Ali The Greatest."