Zero Silence, a Swedish production, takes us on a journey through Tunisia, Egypt and Lebanon beginning in 2009, over a year before the revolutions began.
Alexandra Sandels, one of the filmmakers, has been a journalist in the Arab region for over five years and speaks Arabic. Her colleagues, Jonny von Wallström and Javeria Rizvi Kabanihave have also worked in the region before, particularly in Egypt.
The film gives an insight into the lives of activists in the three countries but offers little new material for a regular Arab viewer.
“When we started the project we felt that voices from the MENA region were missing internationally,” Sandels told Ahram Online. “Media often portrays violence and what we were interested in documenting were the ordinary people and members of the young generation pushing for change in their home countries...This might be obvious to an Egyptian but not necessarily for the rest of the world.”Despite the intensity of the topic, the documentary has poetic undertones and an unhurried pace that gives the subjects moments of reflection. The soundtrack and the composition of shots give the film many picturesque sequences and the editing helps maintain a consistent flow.
Sandels had known her subjects before shooting began and it’s evident that most of them were at ease during the filming.
“It was important for us that the audience would feel as if they were 'hanging out' with the subjects,” she explained.The film focuses on Egyptian activists Wael Abbas and Hossam El-Hamalawy, Rebecca Saade from Lebanon and Lilia Wesalty from Tunisia.
In pre-revolution footage of Abbas and Hamalawy they talk about the immediacy of an uprising (Hamalawy says that the best solution is a general strike).
Wesalty in Tunisia relays the events of the Tunisian uprising and talks about the newfound ownership of public space, something missing during the Ben Ali regime.
Saade’s story is more personal, talking about her life as a lesbian in Lebanon and her LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) activism.
The film also captures the work of activists during the 25 January Revolution in Egypt, which toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Musicians from the three countries are also interviewed, including the Lebanese Zeid Hemdan, who was detained for hours last month, because of his song ‘General Suleiman’.
Whilst a journalist in Egypt, Sandels reported on human rights activists and bloggers like Kareem Amer, who was jailed for four years for criticizing Hosni Mubarak and Al-Azhar, as well as stories about leaked online videos of police torture.
“We became inspired by these people and felt that they should be given a greater voice since the regimes in the region were doing their best to shut them down,” she said.Despite her familiarity with the region, Sandels had not visited Tunisia before. Relaying hardships faced while making the documentary, Sandels said that when she and Jonny arrived in Tunis after the uprising they were held at the airport and asked whether they were journalists and whether they were carrying equipment.
“We convinced them we were fashion photographers and that we were shooting a spread about post-revolution tourism in Tunisia for Sweden's edition of Vogue,” Sandels recalled.An interesting observation about Tunisia by Sandels is that the people who hailed the role of Facebook and Twitter most vociferously were those in poorer rural areas, like Kasserine, which witnessed a lot of violence and many deaths during the revolution.
“At the same time you see clearly that it's obviously not Facebook which created the revolutions,” Sandels said in response to this misconception propagated in the media and the West.
The film was well-received in Sweden with many audience members wondering why this portrayal of the Arab region is distinctively lacking in the West.
The filmmakers are planning further small screenings in Sweden after its debut, which was seen by around 350 people. They are also planning to screen it in Cairo and Beirut later this autumn.