Film Review: Uprising

Powerful, ground-level documentary on the 2011 Egyptian revolution.

There are moments, early on, when you wish political scientist and first-time documentary filmmaker Fredrik Stanton had interviewed government and police authorities to get their side of the story regarding the populist uprising that drove Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarek out of office in February 2011. But then comes the footage from this first "Facebook revolution," cell-phone video showing police thrashing unarmed demonstrators, and you realize any cursory attempt at balance would simply recall the old joke, "And so, Mr. Hitler, how do you respond to these charges?" When official figures themselves show at least 846 civilians dead and some 6,000 injured, any proffered rationale would have been, let's say, insufficient.

The hindsight of history shows it's hardly hyperbole to describe this sorry climax of Mubarek's 30-year rule as evil. Hani Shukrallah, managing editor of Ah-Ahram, Egypt's largest newspaper, cites the government's multi-billion-dollar corruption when the largely impoverished populace could barely afford food: The protestors' chant of "Bread, freedom, human dignity" was literal. Uprising does skim through the reasons Mubarek retained a state of emergency from 1981 on—a choice that, says Human Rights Watch's Heba Morayef, "allowed the Ministry of Interior to detain thousands of people without charge or trial for unlimited periods of time." Police would torture political prisoners. And as former U.S. ambassador Edward Walker says, his office would write a yearly report detailing human-rights abuses, "hand it over to the Ministry of Interior and to the presidency, and they said, 'Oh, we'll do better.' Then next year we did it all over again." Of countenancing the relatively stable American ally for so long, Walker admits, "We took steps which today I wish we hadn't. I can't say I wasn't part of it. But we didn't anticipate that it would go as far as it did."

The documentary—which scored an admirable array of American officials, protest leaders, scholars and others yet keeps returning to video of street protests with the regularity of a refrain—introduces us to Esraa Abdel Fattah, aka "Facebook Girl," and other co-founders of 2008's "April 6 Youth Movement," a protest strike that served as a precursor to the 2011 uprising by showing how social media could foment rebellion. She and others—both head-scarved traditionalist women and more Westernized youth such as blogger-activist Gigi Ibrahim—would eventually use Facebook to organize the crucial Jan. 25, 2011 protest. As Professor Rasha Abdulla, chair of Journalism and Mass Communication at the American University in Cairo, marvels, "This is the first revolution in the world that was on Facebook as an event 12 days before it happened. People were clicking, 'I am attending the revolution'!"

"We decided we wouldn't stop until we removed Mubarek's regime," says the traditionalist, utterly hausfrau-ish Asmaa Mahfouz, another "April 6" co-founder—a grand statement all the more amazing because it came true.

Words can do little justice to the centerpiece of the documentary, the you-are-there footage—both amateur video and from professional photojournalists—placing you directly amid police beatings and killings. Maybe the word "astonishing" will do. Maybe "sick-making." Obviously, any documentary's footage is cherry-picked for effect, but it's hard to say that teargas, water cannons, police batons or armored vehicles that heedlessly run over unarmed protestors at high speed can ever be exaggerated. And if the images alone don't shock you, consider the words of Shaima El-Elaimy, as her voice cracks and she tears up saying, "The man standing right next to me, he got shot in the head. And his head exploded all over me. I have no idea what they shot him with. Brain matter was all over me. Blood." She was shot in the back herself moments later but survived.

The documentary, completed in mid-2012, ends with the sentence "The struggle for full democracy in Egypt continues." As of early 2013, with Islamist Mohammed Morsi showing all indications of being Mubarek redux, the story is still unfolding.