Egypt reels

“I find it outrageous that the corporate-sponsored media are saying things like ‘people in Cairo are tired of all the protests,’” said a red-haired lady, looking genuinely affronted as her voice cut through the hush of a retrofitted Victorian living room. “That’s a lie,” responded event organizer Robert Beshara. “It’s the same lie that they always use to dismiss Occupy.” The gathering seemed to have reached a general consensus, that recent crackdowns by the Military Council of Egypt and by the Department of Homeland Security in places like UC Davis were of a piece–far flung symptoms of the same reactionary foreign and domestic police.

This exchange was among the milder critiques to emerge from the free, communal viewing of “Three Films about the Middle East,” sponsored by the Southside Hub of Production last Saturday. The attendees had trudged through the bleak, dank November evening to pile into a combination ornate sitting room and modern art gallery.

The full house for the screening was, for the most part, a middle-aged, straight-laced crew. Waiting for the films to begin, one couple chatted seriously about the Republican presidential race while another gentleman, immaculately dressed, perpetually stroked his goatee while perusing the Wall Street Journal.

Calling everyone together, the organization’s film director reminded the audience that the event was more topical than they had planned. The news of the day was the renewed brutality in Tahrir Square, where an army that had helped end one dictator’s crimes had begun to do some beating of its own.

It was, therefore, more than slightly surreal to travel with documentary-maker Pamela Nice back to 2003 when the news roiling Egypt was the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The short documentaries are the fruit of Nice’ s several sojourns to the Middle East.

They record the reactions of Egyptians to an American invasion and the aspirations of several Moroccan teenagers. Then, in a cringe-inducing coda, Nice turns the camera back on the United States.

The films have their faults. Nice gives some nice shots of inchoate Cairo avenues, but often confines her interviews to Egyptian academics and journalists with flawless and erudite English. Her second film is an improvement and altogether rougher on the heartstrings. In a stunning contrast, she recounts the desperation of an unemployed youth detained for illegally immigrating to Spain and an uplifting account of optimistic students craving PhDs from the West.

The footage she produces–young people talking about Islam as a religion of peace–is shown in opposition to the words of a suit we see later in a Minnesotan coffee shop, who calls the entire region “backward and inhumane.”

Americans, in these films, are the ones that consistently come off as backward.

As java-seeking customers promptly surrender when asked to identify basic Middle Eastern countries on a map, you flinch. When an Egyptian man recounts the number of times he’s been asked by Americans if he lives in a pyramid, you want to weep.

At the evening’s close, a petition was passed around protesting the $1.3 billion in munitions we’re still providing to the military government in Egypt. Afterwards, Beshara treated viewers to an original ode he made to the crisis, built around the refrain, “The Situation is Fucked Up!” Confronted with this profane techno ditty, the goateed gentleman stared pointedly into the floorboards. It was clear, however, that no one disagreed.

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