Review of Egyptian documentary Out on the Street
Directed by Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk
Scene from Out on the Street
In November 2016, I attended a screening of a film entitled Out on the Street (Barra fi-l-sharia') hosted by the Middle East Solidarity magazine and the Egyptian Solidarity Initiative, held in London. The event was entitled Striking Back? Workers and the Struggle for Social Justice in Egypt and began with a short talk by Anne Alexander, co-editor of Middle East Solidarity magazine, detailing the current situation facing Egyptian workers. This was followed by the film screening and a Q&A with co-director Philip Rizk and journalist Jack Shenker, author of a recent book on the Egyptian revolution entitled The Egyptians: A Radical Story.
Out on the Street (Barra fi-l-sharia') is a fascinating film that narrates an unfolding workers’ strike in a factory in Helwan, Egypt. The film touches on some of the key debates that surround the question of “workers” in Egypt, including the heated question of privatization and its adverse effects on industrial workers across the country. Co-director Philip Rizk explained that the title, Out on the Street, denotes the new situation facing workers, that is, a situation of precarity where they have lost the old guarantees and stability that came with having a factory job. Throughout the film we see the manager of the factory threaten to throw workers out on the street if they demanded too much or were not “up to standard”. When asked what these workers would do out on the street, his response is simple: “God will take care of them.”
The manager often makes references to the company being privatized and alludes to the fact that it was unprofitable as a public sector company and thus workers need to accept the changes that come with privatization. In one scene one of the workers challenges this narrative, asking: “If the company was failing, why did you buy it?”. Here we see the official rationale for the mass privatizations in Egypt challenged by bringing attention to the massive profits that were made by individual businessmen in the process of factories being privatized. The links between businessmen and the state are made clear towards the end of the film, when the manager involves the police to put down the strike. One of the workers remarks: “He’s a businessmen and the government will take his side”. The connections are also made between the transnational sphere and the factory, with one of the workers characterizing privatization as an attempt to “copy Europe in everything”.
Co-director Philip Rizk interviewed by Jack Shenker after the screening
Philip Rizk is a filmmaker and writer based in Cairo. He is a member of the Egyptian collective Mosireen and has worked on several other film projects about Egypt. In an interview with Philip before the screening, we discussed the ways in which this film has been received in Egypt, as well as broader questions about the role of cultural production in politics. While the film is not about the 2011 revolution, many of the issues that triggered the uprising in 2011, such as police brutality, corruption, the dominance of businessmen and the process of privatization, are central to the film. Philip noted that the mainstream Egyptian press reviewed the film very negatively, seeing it as poorly-made and not representative of Egyptian film industry standards. Screenings in Cairo were mostly in locations such as Zawya, which, as Philip pointed out, caters to what he called a ‘typical Downtown activist/intellectual/journalist’ crowd”. The film was also shown at a cinema in the working-class district of Helwan but very few people turned up. Philip attributes this to the timing and to the fact that the people in that neighbourhood simply do not have the time to go to the cinema or attend other types of cultural events. This turned into a broader discussion about the role of class in cultural production in Egypt. As Philip notes, the infrastructure in place from the 1950s that gave workers access to cultural production, such as state-sponsored Cultural Palaces, has largely been destroyed. Meanwhile, the middle/upper class Egyptians who dominate cultural production today often reproduce particular narratives and have to learn a certain language. These narratives are informed by a global consumerist orientation shared by elites across the globe; narratives tied to global citizenship that is only accessible to certain segments of society. This raises important questions about how Egyptians outside of these classes relate to this language or to these representations.
While much has been said about the state’s crackdown on the cultural community post-2011, Philip rightly notes that there have always been constraints, ranging from funding to censorship. Indeed this film was produced independently without any state funding because they wanted to avoid the strings attached to donor projects. The directors also had to negotiate with Egyptian censors and chose to cut out the sound in some scenes, in which workers made more overt political references. Moreover, there is also a prevalence of self-censorship among the cultural community, who do not want to take risks given the sporadic nature of state repression.
Another important issue brought up by Philip in the interview concerned the meaning of “culture”. According to Philip, throughout the revolution, for example, there was culture everywhere: “I don’t really see this strict dichotomy between culture and non-culture”. He used the term “pro-revolutionary propaganda” to describe his role in spreading photographs, videos, and new narratives about Egypt post-2011. “The main media outlets are not in our hands so it’s always this alternative form of dissemination of ideas and that is extremely important in a revolutionary process to get people to question their own ideas or be challenged by the process. What was most important about that period was the way people changed through participation in revolution”. Although little has changed structurally, people changed. Cultural production is a more diffused process, and the role of filmmakers and other parts of the cultural community is to produce counter-narratives that resist the narratives put forward by political and economic elites.
In the Q&A that followed the film, Philip Rizk noted that the aim of the film, with its minimalist approach, was to reveal “the logic of things”—in this case the logic of Egypt’s political and economic system at a particular moment in time as it affected a particular group—rather than directly portray it and to allow viewers to “imagine something that isn’t”. Rizk said that he wanted this film to make people rethink or question something, like a good book, and, in that respect, the film greatly succeeds, by showing the complex rationalizations and effects of privatization as well as the connections between workers, businessmen, the state and capital. It also makes an important contribution to cultural production post-2011 by providing alternative narratives about neoliberalism and the state.