Sunday, October 2, 2011

#NYFF Review: "Tahrir"

Over the past few months, I’ve found myself using more and more of this space to sing the praises of the “present tense documentary,” which eschews narration, talking head interviews, and after-the-fact analysis in favor of the straightforward presentation of unfiltered footage of a historical event. (Examples include the works of Nicole Rittenmeyer and Seth Skundruck for History, or the ESPN 30 for 30 film “June 17th, 1994.”). Unfolding with an up-close, real-time intensity, these films are less interested in commentary than documentation, though the precise presentation of these events often becomes commentary itself. Pulling off that tricky balancing act is harder than it looks, as evidenced by a markedly less successful entry into the subgenre, Stefano Savona’s documentary Tahrir.

Make no mistake, this is a relevant and important ground-level view of the Egyptian revolution, with the kind of embedded access that most Western journalists could only dream of. Savona’s camera arrives on day six and is there through Mubarak’s resignation, capturing the force and immediacy of the event. He captures chanting and rallying. He eavesdrops on feverish discussions and strategy sessions. He watches, as the protestors do, Mubarak speaking to the crowd, and their reactive chants (“Get out! Get out!” and “Traitor, you’re a disgrace to us!”). When Mubarak’s military began to attack the demonstrators, one reacts with horror, his face right in the camera, a cauldron of raw emotion: “They shot at us with live bullets! Hosni Mubarak, you fired on our children!” And the joy and triumph of the final scenes is infectious, as demonstrators shout “The people win! We win!”

Much of that footage is riveting. But much of it is not—Savona stays with the long political discussions scenes long after our interest flags, as the participants debate semantics and minutiae; watching those scenes is something akin to slogging through the early chapters of Ten Days That Shook the World. Many shots hold still for long periods of screen time, which occasionally invites us to study their subjects, but often (in less active tableaux) invite the mind to wander.

Savon’s HD photography is impressive—so much so that in the first scenes, I wondered if the events had been restaged, since the cinematography was so clean and professional. There are several breathtaking visuals: a long, fluid shot that moves through the packed crowd, tight close-ups of demonstrators chanting “The Egyptians are here!”

But Tahrir is ultimately more impressionistic than informative (or, at the very least, comprehensive). From the beginning, the lack of background or explanation leaves us with no sense of how they got there and how it started—extraneous information for some audiences, to be sure, but not all. Maybe even that is not required; there is a scene late in the film where a demonstrator’s poem is heard as voice-over, and we get a sense then of what the film, for all of its power and proximity, is missing. There is no doubt that Tahrir should be seen, and appreciated, for it is valuable—but it is also fundamentally flawed. It feels like the starting point for a great documentary, but it doesn’t feel like a finished one.

"Tahrir" screens 10/2 and 10/4 at the New York Film Festival.

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