The scene shows a street, unadorned post-war concrete buildings, the image is unstable. There’s a man in one corner: is he carrying a machine gun? The voice calls out: use your brains before you shoot, says the subtitle, why don’t you use your brain? It’s from the film The Uprising, or from a video posted on YouTube, which is what the 80 minutes of Peter Snowdon’s film are made from, or with, or of… The preposition is significant, though it won’t bear the weight of the demonstration. That needs more elaborate moves, and some explanation. The film charts the phases of the Arab Spring through a compilation of videos downloaded from the Net and occasionally traced to their original source. No specific coordinates of time or space are given, but we know we’re in 2011 and the clips enable us to identify Cairo, the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Tunis, Sana’a. In the final credits the film scrupulously lists the URLs for the material used within each “day” of the chronicle, which is organised as one week running from 7 days ago to today, at which point the film ends. But the documentary function of the film is secondary. Its primary thrust is transformative, or translational. In this sense it intends to be, according to the film-maker, more than the sum of its parts, and a singular act of the imagination that subtends the historical interest of any of the documents from which – or with which, or of which – it is composed.
It is translational in the generic sense that it does the work of subtitling material that would otherwise remain only partially accessible to Western audiences. And it is translational in the more critical sense that it moves the material from one mode to another, or from one sphere to another, and in so doing accrues other significance to it. So joyful disbelief resonates in some of the videos, appal and incomprehension in others, anger too, and terrible poignancy in at least one, but the film is none of these registers exactly or immediately. Its mode is more reflexive: how am I looking at this now, where am I looking at this now? What arc lies between a handheld camera dancing a sudden break into a sprint as the subtitles inform us that they’re using real bullets, and the “today” that extends from the screen to my seat in an art-house cinema or a university screening-room? What sort of meshing of our terrible remoteness now from these events does it offer us?
The film is showing in Paris at the Ateliers Varan in November.