Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>18 Days</em> and the “Montage of History”: The People of the Egyptian Revolution

“We become faced with the individuality and humanity of history, the functioning components of a movement. 18 Days translates this reality of individual experience to film, in a sense presenting the audience with 10 YouTube clips of people affected by the revolution, telling their stories.”

18 Days (Tamantashar yom), an anthology film project that chronicles stories of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, premiered on May 18 of the same year at Cannes. It should not be particularly surprising that the revolution, fueled as it was and brought to the international stage so spectacularly by new social media including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, should be so immediately “uploaded” and “commented on,” in a collective sense, via film. It is also not surprising, given the long tradition of cinema in Egypt, that this particular revolution should so quickly find a response from its nation’s filmmakers. 18 Days picks up the revolutionaries’ spirit of collaboration and cooperation and transforms it, in both production and presentation, into the language of film.

With a collective crew comprising, as the press material for the film notes, “ten directors, twenty or so actors, six writers, eight directors of photography, eight sound engineers, five set designers, three costume designers, seven editors, three post-production companies, and about ten technicians,” the films are discrete units whose only narrative unity is in the backdrop of the revolution. Some of the stories are inspired by real events; for example, 19-19 deals with the interrogation of a supposed protest organizer and seems to have been inspired by the story of Wael Ghonim, an Egyptian Google executive who acted as an organizer for elements of the revolution and was held for 11 days by Egyptian police during the event. The films cover a wide range of events, some at the heart of the revolution, some at the periphery. Yet each one concerns the lives of everyday Egyptians and not only the impact of the revolution on them, but their own impact on it as well.

The movie starts with Retention (Sherif Arafa), a film set in a mental institution, though whether all the residents are really mentally disturbed is questionable; the film hints that some were placed there by the government temporarily for “convenience.” We are introduced to the inhabitants of this particular facility, each one from a different occupation or background: a teacher, journalist, police officer, legitimate and criminal businessmen, as well as an apparent amnesiac, among others. The heard-but-unseen hospital administration acts as a stand-in for the army, which quickly was called in to replace the police and acted as a sort of mediator or at least a buffer (albeit at times unsuccessfully) between the protestors and the government proper. We observe the inmates’ reactions as they see the events of the revolution unfold: the teacher and journalist are excited to see history happening before their eyes; the police officer is skeptical and increasingly dumbfounded by the protest’s success; and the “amnesiac” recovers his identity, stating that he is “the youth” of Egypt and wholeheartedly supporting the revolt.

Retention functions as an allegory for the revolution itself and the way different groups of people reacted to it (according to the filmmaker). Within 18 Days, Retention is the only film that takes a society-wide view of the revolution, and thus provides a fitting opening to the remaining films, which each look more closely at particular individuals within Egypt and how they are affected by (and affect) the revolution or, more importantly, their fellow citizens. The characters of Retention are broad caricatures who act as stand-ins for segments of Egyptian society and try to provide the viewer with a wider look at the progress of the revolution. Additionally, the characters being inmates in an asylum reflects not only a real aspect of the Mubarak regime’s security apparatus, but also a clear state-as-prison metaphor. The film gives a broad (if metaphorical) setting for the more concrete and particular events that are to follow.

What sets 18 Days apart is the use of multiple particular, discrete units of film to tell the wider story of the revolution in Egypt. Its focus is on the importance of the multiplicity of individual experiences within that defined historical moment. We see the viewpoints of people in the thick of the revolution’s action as well as those who are simply trying to get by on the periphery. The film presents us with what we could call a “montage of history.” This interpretation draws from both the Hollywood tradition and the Soviet school developed by Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s definition of montage as “the idea that arises from the collision of independent thoughts” wherein “each sequential element is perceived not next to, but on top of the other” [“A Dialectic Approach to Film Form,” emphasis in original] can help give us an idea of how to view this film as a history of the Egyptian revolution.

Of course, Eisenstein’s use of the montage was predicated on conflict, betraying his Marxist-Leninist political orientation. Each section of the montage sequence was judged against those around it; the contrast between or among the shots was integral. But in the Hollywood system, montage retained its place among a variety of other editing and narrative techniques available to filmmakers, becoming now a rather clichéd and oft-parodied device. Hollywood montage conflates time, giving the spectator a condensed view of an extended chronology of progress or evolution. This is achieved by selecting several emblematic events, the specific chronology of which is sometimes unimportant, and emphasizing the essential simultaneity over a period of time, finally culminating in (presumably) the success of the depicted enterprise. The importance is in the occurrence of the events (or shots) depicted and ultimately their result, rather than their particular composition within the sequence or among each other.

The “montage of history” of 18 Days takes a page from each tradition. In practice it relies on the Hollywood style: unlike proper Eisenteinian montage, the films do not appear to provide direct contrast between each other. There is no evidence of a strict dialectical counterpoint among the films, no deeper metaphor that the audience is meant to draw from the arrangement of the individual films themselves. Outside of the opening and closing films, which function as bookends to the events of the other films (and really, the revolution), there is no intra-filmic chronology or “progress” outside of the historical chronology of the revolution, which the viewer must supply for himself. The point is that it does not matter, within those 18 days, when the stories happened, in terms of the wider film or historically (with one or two exceptions). Rather, what matters is simply that they happened (and to a lesser extent, why they happened, i.e., the revolution itself).

However, the interpretation, our understanding of how to watch these films or the movie as a whole, is drawn from the Soviet tradition: we must see the shorts or segments as “on top of” instead of “next to” each other, focusing on their simultaneity and not their chronology. The project shows the spectator history as it really happens (or happened): in discrete units of individual history, which come together broadly as sociocultural history, though many individual lines do not intersect, but which push history forward nonetheless. We are not drawn to the conflict or contrast between each section, as traditional Soviet montage would have us; rather, we are drawn to an additive view, adding and piling each section together to experience a fuller understanding of this event. The “collision” of these “independent thoughts” is history itself.

This is not to say that there is no contrast among any of the films — the films do seem to be ordered and grouped thematically, and there is some contrast between these themes, providing a kind of emotional or tonal montage. Following Retention are God’s Creation and 19-19, which deal with violence at the hands of the state (the police in the first days of the revolution and special police interrogators, respectively). Then come When the Flood Hits . . . and Curfew, which are more lighthearted views of ordinary Egyptians trying to get by as the revolution moves around them, both of which end on an upbeat, revolution-friendly note. Revolution Cookies and #Tahrir2/2 are tragic tales, dealing with themes of collaboration, survival, and finally violence. Window and Interior/Exterior deal with relationships and the impact the revolution has on them, ultimately bringing two people together in the same way that it brought Egyptians as a whole together (so say the films). The final film is Ashraf Seberto, a stand-alone in much the same way as Retention, which drives home one of the anthology’s overriding themes: that the revolution was a galvanizing moment for Egyptians as a people and nation, spurred forward by ordinary citizens who did extraordinary things.

The films of 18 Days also contrast with each other to the extent that they show the same historical moment from numerous points of view. Separately, each is like any other narrative film, telling a simple story about a character or group in a given moment. Together, the films contrast the experience of everyday Egyptians in perhaps the defining moment of their generation. Narrative films have made use of similar multi-plot storytelling, including the recent Crash and Babel, which stress, among others, themes of human interconnectedness and personal, individual impact. These films nonetheless fall within the structures of traditional film/history by making the character convergences and impacts explicit: despite many, perhaps contrasting storylines, there is ultimately a single narrative that is the crux of the work.

18 Days falls outside this structure in its approach of anthologizing a historical moment. The single narrative is implicit here: the historical origin, progress, and outcome of the Egyptian Revolution are left to the memory and knowledge of the audience, while the films themselves pluck stories from this background to isolate and present them. By the same token, anthology films are certainly not uncommon methods of storytelling, especially when the goal is to provide the audience with a multiplicity of viewpoints. Such projects allow a theme to be addressed without necessarily restricting that theme to one approach or interpretation. In many ways 18 Days is typical of an anthology film project, built around the theme of the Egyptian Revolution. And indeed it is through this method that the “montage of history” is found: the focus on the individual, and then viewing them together as a whole, to give us a perspective unlike that which is found in traditional narrative storytelling, a view from both inside (the individual) and outside (the society), both discrete and holistic.

Even the method of production displays a sense of this dichotomy. By producing each film (and “view” of history) independently, absent of a singular narrative or even director, the project reinforces the principle of multiple views and experiences of a history, though tied together by a single historical event or moment. At the same time, though, it highlights the collaborative or unitary spirit that was prevalent in the days of the revolution and its immediate aftermath — for example, protestors of different faiths protecting each other from police during prayers. This collaboration and sharing of resources (see press statement above) is not as typical of anthology projects, but for this endeavor it seems almost a requirement. 18 Days embraces the spirit of its inspiration not only at the level of the “story” presented by the unified film (the story of the revolution as Egyptians experienced it) but even at the level of production: the sharing of resources and talent among the directors and other crew to produce a varied but unified work. The project, in both presentation and production, highlights individual impact while still showing that such a movement or project can become greater than the sum of its parts.

Emphasis on the individual has become, in some ways, endemic to the culture of our modern Internet-savvy generation, where the ability to share the experience of another person — even one far removed from us by culture, geography, or anything else — can be called up by the touch of a button. When we do so, we are faced not by nations or cultures or tribes but individuals, who express themselves as they are and lose the traditional filters by which we formerly experienced them. In its own day, film was something of a social medium that allowed viewers an access most had never had to the lives and experiences of people around the world. So today we can have that access all the more readily from the comfort of our homes with sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and especially YouTube, a site that allows anyone to use film (in its broadest sense) to share themselves with the world.

Social media sites such as these played a large role in the planning and execution of the Egyptian Revolution as well as bringing the attitudes and experiences of the protestors themselves directly to the entire world. Window from 18 Days directly deals with the social media aspect of the revolution as we watch a young Egyptian man experience much of the revolution from his computer. Finally, after many days, he goes out to the streets to find a young woman he has seen from his window go out to protest every day. The title is appropriate not only for the way the main character looks out to the world, but for the window that social media provided for the wider world to experience the revolution. These websites allowed individual Egyptians to voice their thoughts, concerns, and hopes about the revolution among each other and with a watching world.

The importance of social media in this context is that each person is given a voice and an opportunity to speak out. We as viewers or consumers become privy to what, only a decade or so ago, would have been merely a newspaper headline, perhaps featuring a few anonymous quotes. We would have acknowledged a historic moment; however, we would only have experienced it from a distance, as a societal shift, rather than as a movement of individuals. But now we can have our pick of hundreds or thousands of individuals speaking about what is happening to them personally, with no middleman. We become faced with the individuality and humanity of history, the functioning components of a movement. 18 Days translates this reality of individual experience to film, in a sense presenting the audience with 10 YouTube clips of people affected by the revolution, telling their stories.

18 Days is, at its core, a semi-fictionalized oral history: like Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation or Studs Terkel’s The Good War it uses the experiences of everyday people to tell the larger story of a historical event. It acts as a prism, breaking the single beam of the Egyptian Revolution into its component parts, the “montage of history” that is each story of the people who lived it. This form of storytelling or historiography, though not new, takes on a changed significance and relevance in the world we now live in, one that not only seeks to accentuate individuality/individual impact, but grants us real access to the rest of the world as individuals more than any time before. 18 Days‘ approaches may not be especially unique, but they are the most appropriate not only for the events themselves but for the modern world at large. In our current world, where such access to the individual stories and lives of others is more commonplace than ever before, perhaps the project provides not only an appropriate reaction to the events it portrays, but a template for a new way to approach history, or any narrative, in film.