From Condemning Voter Fraud to Chronicling Regime’s Predicament

Lynne Rogers

Two Documentaries about Egypt and Syria: From Condemning Voter Fraud to Chronicling Regime’s Predicament

Egypt: We Are Watching You
Directed by Leila Menjou and Sherief Elkatsha
The Cinema Guild, 2007, 52 minutes 

In the spring of 2005, when the Egyptian government announced a change to the Constitution for multi-candidate presidential elections, the population took to the streets of Cairo decrying the gesture a ‘fraud.’ Simultaneously, three courageous women began to worry about the present state of Egypt. Bosayna, an attractive newscaster for Egyptian National Television, votes at an empty polling station and then later reports full civilian participation to her television audience. Disarmed by the blatant hypocrisy, Bosayna joins forces with Engi, a chain smoking Marketing Consultant and Ghada, a university professor and mother of four.

Armed with cell phones, video cameras, a lap top, and a palpable sense of justice, these three musketeers of Egyptian Democracy form, a watch group to monitor elections. When they find polling stations closed and judges changing votes, the women resolutely turn to the Judges Club for an investigation and to people on the streets to rally support.

Only two judges have the stamina to stand behind the women. Ultimately 3,500 protestors are arrested and spend more than a year in jail. Just when the women consider their failure, the World Movement for Democracy invites Engi to speak to 25 Presidents at the United Nations. She expects to be insulted when President Bush winks at her and tells her “to hang in there.” Leila Menjou and Sherief Elkatsha’s inspiring documentary “Egypt: We Are Watching You” records the valiant efforts of three admirable women who successfully call their country to task for apathy and their government for corruption. 

Syria: Chess Match at the Borders
Directed by Amal Hamelin des Essarts
Icarus Films, 2008, 52 minutes

As Clinton and Obama open talks with Syria, viewers can catch a comprehensive introduction to Syrian politics in the documentary “Syria: Chess Match at the Borders.” Filmmaker Amal Hamelin des Essarts artfully compiles archival films, graphic cartography and interviews with a local taxi driver and elite political insiders.

Circling the borders as a structure of understanding Syria, the film recounts the repeated defeats by Israel and the occupation of the Golan Heights with 20,000 Syrians still living under Israeli occupation. Moving north to Turkey and the Turkish annexation of Iskenderun, the film looks at the Syrian expulsion of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan after 20 years of support. Turkey’s building of dams to control the flow of the Tigris and the Euphrates establishes water deprivation as vulnerability for Syria, a country without oil.

In its efforts to detangle Syria’s most complicated relationship with Lebanon, the film includes interviews with Walid Jumblatt and Amine Gemayel. After the Syrian former vice president squarely lays the blame for Hariri’s assassination on the Syrian president, the film traces this menacing web to France and Iran. These military tensions and Syria’s economic crisis are further exasperated by the American occupation of Iraq and the flood of Iraqi refugees fleeing to Syria.

The film closes with a cursory glimpse of the mundane hopes of Syrian youth. While some may find this documentary light on the Israeli threat and a little heavy on Syria’s milking of  “billions” in Lebanese taxes (not that one could accuse the Lebanese government of graft or corruption), overall the film makes a valiant effort at presenting Syria’s position as a “victim and a threat” in the Arab arena.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)

Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid

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