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ArteEast Review: Jihan El-Tahri’s “Nasser”

Posted: Mar 09, 2016

Nasser, a documentary by director Jihan El-Tahri, was recently screened as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Doc FortNight 2016” in collaboration with the African Film Festival. Nasser is the first part of the already completed trilogy, which further interrogates the eras of Anwar El-Sadat and Hosny Mubarak, “Egypt’s modern Pharaohs.” While most of El-Tahri’s previous work was based on transnational relations between different regions and their connectedness to the colonial hegemony, this trilogy spans 60 years of Egypt’s modern history and explores the way in which colonial power came to be self-imposed under indigenous rule. However, in conversation with her previous works, El-Tahri attempts to assimilate Egypt into the African discourse from which it has been largely ostracized. In a Q&A session following one of the recent MoMA screenings, El-Tahri refers to Senegalese anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop’s work as her guiding force (in “‪Nations Nègres et Culture,” Diop discusses how Egypt was deliberately treated as distinct from “Africa” under colonial rule so as to deploy the rhetoric of civilizing mission without the hindrance of the ancient Pharaonic civilization.) Her work is therefore informed by a desire to fabricate different mythologies in which personal anecdotes are key. This documentary meshes the past and the present through interviews, archived footage as well as fiction in order to report an exhaustive portrayal of what has changed and yet remained so uncannily the same.

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As El-Tahri recounts in Nasser, upon returning to Egypt following Revolution of 2011, she began to notice an abundance of black and white photographs from the 1950-70’s available for sale in Tahrir Square. She couldn’t grasp the nostalgia suggested by the selling of these photographs in the midst of such vast shifts in the course of history. This incongruence drove her to further investigate the photographic archive of modern Egyptian history, and the discovery of a photo taken during the 1952 revolution in which men were holding out a placard demanding “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice.” Thus was born El-Tahri’s rediscovery of the Nasser Era and her creation of an alternative narrative of the period based on personal anecdotes, including those of some of the most influential participants in the 1952 Revolution, including a number of members of the Free Officers. El-Tahri furthermore reveals that many of the same interviewees will appear throughout her trilogy, tracing narratives that span their involvement in all three regimes. While much documentary has focused on ‘the street’ as a narrative source of alternative histories, El-Tahri’s works turns to the memories of those in power. Asserting that the personal is political, El-Tahri strives to understand the personal back stories behind the politics that move us. She jokingly refers to herself as an archeologist, yet her reference to excavation is extremely apt.

Nasser concentrates on the era of Nasser as a reign, and not as a portrait of Gamal Abdel Nasser. It uncovers untold stories such as that of President Mohamed Naguib. and offers a thorough exploration of the period’s student, communist and Islamic activist movements. Throughout the film, El-Tahri meshes the factual with Arabic movie clips of 1960’s-1970’s, giving the audience a better grasp on the context and the texture of that time, and underscoring a view of history as a self-directed, self-told and multi-faceted piece of fiction. Throughout, El-Tahri also weaves suggestions that despite the vast changes to modern Egypt, the country remains engrained in a colonial mentality, and steeped in a legacy of vast inequalities and authoritarianism that characterize the ongoing reign of the Pharaoh.El-Tahri’s documentary couples criticism of the Nasser era with an intense mourning that provokes wonder at the paternal role the Egyptian people have to this day assigned to their leaders. In one of the film’s most poignant moments, one of El-Tahri’s subjects explains the first appearance of the Central Security Forces (CSF) in the 1960’s, which aimed to shield the military from direct confrontation with the people.  The clip is spliced with footage from a 2011 CSF attack in Tahrir Square, deceiving the viewer for a moment that they are watching a confrontation from decades past. The collision of time and place as well as rule elicited a grim amusement from the audience, the uncanny connection between the past and the present begging the question “Is freedom is crippling?”

Salma Abdel Salam, is both a dancer and a researcher. She received her MA in Performance Studies from Tisch NYU and is currently the Program Assistant at ArteEast.

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