Film : Interview

Peter Snowdon

by Pamela Cohn

Snowdon on the layering of realities in his new film, The Uprising, a blend of fictional narrative and documentary footage of the Arab Spring uprisings.


Attack on Change Square, Yemen, 18 March 2011.The Uprising. UK/Belgium. 2013. Directed by Peter Snowdon.

Peter Snowdon’s The Uprising is a powerful film consisting of almost a hundred amateur videos recorded during the Arab Spring by individuals caught up in various revolutions in the chaotic, crowded, deadly streets of Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt. Snowdon initially discovered these films as uploads on YouTube, and, after a painstaking editing process, ultimately used them to frame a larger fictional narrative about the citizen uprisings.

Over the last decade, Snowdon has authored several pieces of experimental film and video that have been exhibited around the world at festivals and gallery spaces, garnering praise for his highly-crafted method of interpreting collective storytelling. The Uprising is, in many ways, a continuation of this exploration, but this time the footage was shot by ordinary people with mobile phones and small cameras who were in the streets and in the throes of revolution, many of them anonymous voices and presences with whom the filmmaker has never otherwise communicated. The Uprising, Snowdon’s first feature-length documentary, won the Opus Bonum Award at its world premiere at the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival in October, 2013. For its North American début, the film has been selected for the prestigious Documentary Fortnight 2014, MoMA’s International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media. I spoke with Snowdon from his studio in Belgium a few days before his departure for the States.

Pamela Cohn With the ubiquitous use of camera phones and other small hand-held devices to record visuals and sound by people in the streets, we are able to experience these upheavals in more immediate and visceral ways because we can see and hear what’s happening, creating an oftentimes much deeper level of emotional engagement than we do through, say, tweets or other kinds of reports. What were some of your first discoveries as you were culling all this footage?

Peter Snowdon: I’ll start by saying that I did not get into all this from the stance of a filmmaker. I lived in Egypt from 1997 to 2000 working as a journalist for an Egyptian-English language newspaper. When the revolution broke out there in January of 2011 and it became clear that this was something really big, I started trying to contact my friends there. The régime had shut off the phone network. I was phoning and not getting through, nor were my emails answered. I thought I could at least find some of my journalist friends via the Internet, so I opened a Twitter account, a platform I had never used before, and started looking for people I knew and found many within a short time. But I also found a lot of other things that were going on and I fell into this vast social media sea. I spent most of the rest of the 18 days following events in this slightly deferred, real-time, way. I was amazed by a number of things. As a former journalist, it felt like I was being given access to the journalistic process and watching how information or rumor would circulate and become verified, or not. I found it both politically and anthropologically fascinating, that window that Twitter gives you, becoming a hub for me, and millions of others. But these things don’t exist in isolation. They all work together—what is happening physically on the street, and then the virtual material of YouTube, Twitter, blog posts, news from Al Jazeera and other outlets. As I was circulating among all these things, I started watching more and more YouTube videos and I was captivated by their emotional immediacy. I was watching a lot of my Egyptian friends finally getting what they wanted after all these years. It was as if I could still participate somehow without even being there. These were some of the most powerful moving images I had encountered in quite a long time. After the fall of Mubarak, I continued following the revolutions that were happening in other places besides Egypt and I started loosely accumulating a list of links to videos, which for me, were almost like short films in their own right. In Paris in March of that year, I ran into Laurence Rebouillon who was the president at that time of the Collectif Jeune Cinéma, an association that distributes some of my films. She approached me and knowing that I’d lived in Egypt for years, she assumed I knew some artists there. She wanted to program an evening of artists’ videos from the Arab world and wanted to know if I would curate a show. I was thinking about how the YouTube videos I had been watching on my laptop would translate onto a big screen. So I said that I would curate this evening if I could mix these artists’ videos from before the revolutions with some of the YouTube videos from the revolutions themselves. During the post-show discussion, everybody wanted to talk about the YouTube videos far more than the others. That’s when I realized that I wasn’t the only person feeling this kind of impact. People felt interrogated by this material because it speaks to us directly on some level. It was then I decided I wanted to make an anthology that could circulate independently of the art videos. Two and a half years later, I discovered that I had made a film!


Seven mile march, Sanaa, Yemen, 13 May 2011.The Uprising. UK/Belgium. 2013. Directed by Peter Snowdon.

PC You’ve taken all of these revolutions happening in different places and made something we could call some kind of mash-up in order to create a fictional narrative. Is it safe to assume that this might not sit well with some people, artistic imperatives notwithstanding? What did that process look like, this journey you took to get to the current structure of the film, collapsing everything into one week’s time to tell the story?

PS I can tell you that the process was very, very slow. I started working consciously on what was to become the film in March of 2011. In October of 2011, my Egyptian friends were living in a reality where the priority of the régime was to erase the visible, tangible traces of what had happened, as a way of erasing this memory of the power the people had felt at that moment. They found value in the fact that somebody was just collecting it or making it accessible again because things on YouTube do get lost. It’s a very strange archive with strange conditions of access. When I shared what I had with Bruno Tracq who came onto the project as my producer, editor and ultimately co-writer, he suggested that we could completely respect this material in the way that I wanted to but that we could also take it in a direction that is more filmic in its structure and, in effect, reach a much larger audience than it would if it just remained an anthology. I was very interested in that idea. He also told me he thought we could be done by Christmas, which confirms that he’s the only other person even more optimistic than I am about how long things I do are going to take! But having that kind of irrational optimism is key to getting to that point of no return, I think. We started our initial edit with these long, river-like fluxes of video, gradually moving from an anthology form to a narrative form. But behind both those forms was the same idea: what I was watching on YouTube was energy circulating from one place and time to another, taking form in gesture and symbol and imagery. I would be watching people destroying portraits of their dictators in one country, and a few weeks later, I’d be watching that happen in another place. For me, this is a structural thing because it’s part of the way in which these revolutions propagate, and in how they become different from one another. People are watching these videos from all over the region and recognizing themselves in them. So these videos are also propositions. A video maker in Tripoli is not just speaking to those in Tripoli and telling them to come down into the street, but he’s also possibly—and perhaps unintentionally—telling someone in Tunis or Yemen to come down into the street. Of course, in the course of that message being transmitted, it will be transformed. I was seeing a process of repetition and variation going on all across the region that would have even further iterations in things like the Occupy movement, in Taksim Gezi Park in Istanbul, and on and on, affecting people in different ways all across the globe. The journey of the film was to move from this anthology form to something more narrative. The anthology form let us represent this repetition of the same actions in different places very precisely: the viewer would move through an imaginary revolution where in each spot along the way there was a station where you would stop and watch what was going on. But the result was a film that was too static, especially in the early sections. So from there, we very slowly moved towards a film that took a more linear form, in which each of these moments or events was actually only represented one time. So now, as you move from one event to another, you also move from one country to another. The circulation of the energy is still there, but it is demonstrated less directly. Instead, you are able to follow a more continuous story. From the beginning, there were two things that were clear in my mind. I wanted to show how these people were riffing off one another, and shouldn’t we—all of us—feel this compulsion to do this when we watch these videos? But I also wanted to show that getting these tyrants to ship out on a plane was the easy bit. The difficult part is what comes after. It was clear from the beginning that fifty percent of the moral and political weight of the film had to come after that moment. At the time we started work in 2011, there were only two countries—Tunisia and Egypt—that had moved into that second phase. So the second half of the film became, by necessity, a more linear narrative because of the fact that we were only dealing with stories from two countries, not six. We came to the conclusion that the best way to respect the material was to treat it as material. In the early days, we weren’t “editing.” It took a year of getting into the process of creating this linearity to get comfortable enough with the footage to treat it as anything that we might have shot ourselves, meaning we could fine edit without the feeling of betraying or falsifying or misrepresenting. That was a very long process for both Bruno and me because we were always dealing with such an open archive of possibilities.

PC You shared some writings with me about these videos, specifically talking about this overriding theme of revolution—not just any revolution, but these very violent revolutions in the streets where people die. You talk about honor and sacrifice. You talk about these revolutions as being central to the “moral economy of the people.” How did this concept become integral to how you and Bruno figured out how to not only de-contextualize, but re-purpose, these videos?

PS I de-contextualized the material in order to create narrative. This approach comes directly from the work I’ve been doing these past five years or so on much less obviously political themes. All the films I’ve been making since the beginning of this decade have been centered on creating imaginary communities. I would take various interviews consisting of long conversations, and fragment them and turn them into imaginary conversations between all these people who hadn’t met one another. The metaphorical things that were coming in through the language they used, consciously or not, were the guiding principle, not necessarily the actual stories they told. That’s what interests me about filmmaking, and why I feel uneasy, in some ways, with the word “documentary” and the expectations that come with using that word. What’s important is that documentary processes can also be used to dislocate and disrupt reality, or at least our conventional ideas of reality. This is the opportunity that interests me in documentary practice rather than a representation of what we perceive as reality. In the YouTube footage, I was able to see all of the videos as elements of a single conversation that I could recompose in order to make it visible. It’s not being done to disengage from the immediacy and emotionality of it at all. It’s more that I think the status of reality is a bit of a red herring in general, particularly in terms of artistic practice, and also in terms of political practice. It seems to me that if you’re going to organize a revolution, one of the enemies is our sense that there is a reality that constrains us.


Boy leading chants, Bahrain, 25 February 2011. The Uprising. UK/Belgium. 2013. Directed by Peter Snowdon.

The idea of economic realities is one of the main rhetorical devices that are used to close down people’s imaginations and prevent them from trying to create a world that’s different from the one they currently inhabit. But it goes much deeper than that. In Sylvain George’s most recent film, Vers Madrid (The Burning Bright!), about the Indignados movement in Spain, there is an appearance by the philosopher Agustín García Calvo, whose message is that reality is a 13th-century theological construct, that then got transplanted for ideological reasons into everyday discourse. That resonates with me a lot.

On another level, I came to understand that I was making a film about these images, not about the revolution. I wasn’t there during the Arab revolutions. I wasn’t in the right place and I wasn’t the right person to try and do this kind of work in regards to this subject matter and contextualizing it in this way. Of course, contextualizing something, if that’s all you do, can also be another way of de-politicizing it. I think you have to have a very narrow idea of what the political is to say that we de-politicized this material by treating it the way we did. Embedding these videos in their immediate political context can also serve to isolate the people who made them and the people who appear in them and to circumvent and disable the formation of a certain kind of solidarity. It’s that solidarity–its possibility, and its limits–that is, for me, the question of the film.

What forms of solidarity are implicit in these events, participating in them, recording them on video? How wide of a circle can this solidarity make? Not just for those that have been there, but for those of us who were not. It’s an experimental film in a very literal sense, in the way we daisy-chained these videos together. Could we increase the sense of circulation I saw in them to the point that it would include the viewer of the film as well? The film tries that proposition out. For some people maybe it works, and for others not. I’m quite reconciled to the fact that it won’t be viewed as inclusively as it is meant to be by many people. I understand its potential divisiveness.

The phrase “the moral economy of the people” is taken from a quotation from Marxist historian, E. P. Thompson. He uses this to talk about the values of the working class or the collective that emerged during the Industrial Revolution in Britain. I came across that phrase recently in the context of an essay by Ivan Illich who connected it to the way anthropologists talk about subsistence ethics.

What Illich talks about, to me, is not collective values, per se, so much as the idea that every individual has, repeatedly, the possibility to choose to put the survival of the collective before his or her own survival. That is the idea that’s condensed for me in the phrase “the moral economy of the people,” not in any proto-fascistic way that imposes a way of life upon those who belong to it. You’re dealing with a group of people who are together because they are each, continuously, choosing to be together. You’re dealing with a collective that is formed and then re-performed and re-performed and will disappear if those series of individual acts of reaffirmation cease to occur. It’s the choice made by every body who comes together in the street, where they are collectively vulnerable.

So this is why your question is very valuable to me. In articulating all this, I realize that our editing process—this had never occurred to me—was about doing what I just described to you. In our editing process, it was about getting to the point where we realized there was really no point in having 40 little films one after the other. If we wanted this thing to exist as a film, then we had to discard the material that didn’t work and use what the film needed. Part of the integrity of the material is that it’s willing to be edited, just as part of the integrity of an individual is that they’re willing to forfeit their individual rights when they conflict with those of the collective. But you can’t impose that on anyone in a political sense—not justly, anyway.

PC Even though you’re using these videos as material for your own dramaturgical purposes you must have developed some kind of relationship, particularly after multiple viewings, with these people that were shooting. While we never see the people behind the cameras, we do feel them and hear them and we also realize that these individuals are going to go down filming if they must. It’s emotionally overwhelming to think about that, but that’s really all I think about when I’m watching footage like this, no matter how de-contextualized it is.


Crossing Qasr El-Nil Bridge on the Friday of Anger, Cairo, Egypt, 28 January 2011. The Uprising. UK/Belgium. 2013. Directed by Peter Snowdon.

PS I did feel like I needed to tread quite gently and I worried that people would feel that I was re-appropriating their material for my own ends. The overwhelming reaction, however, has been surprise that I do go to the trouble of trying to contact them and credit them. It’s obvious the material is out there to be circulated.

The only reason I make films is that there’s something I want to see and nobody’s made it yet. So I have to make it. If somebody else did that, I wouldn’t feel like I would need to compete and make more of the same. These people were making these astounding and moving videos. If I had a reason to make this film, it was my fear that these films would be lost, swallowed up into YouTube without being seen again, or not being seen as what they are. In making this film and writing about these videos, my imperative is to make them visible because what they are is a completely unprecedented form of access to the subjectivity of the most ordinary actors of a revolution. This, in itself, is revolutionary. Of course, we can read Flaubert or any number of descriptions from any number of filtered and processed accounts by someone who, for me, is intellectually “top-heavy.” But in these videos, we have the opposite, by force of circumstance: an experience that is directly wired to someone’s body rather than to their mind or even to their emotions, or to their eye. This is an extraordinary privilege.

The virtual is what allows us to engage immediately with other points of view than our own, what saves us from collapsing into some autistic, solipsistic relationship to the world outside us. There was a very clear moment of recognition for me where I thought, this kind of filmmaking is what happens when people are unleashed or released from some sort of self-imposed censorship that exists everywhere, or almost everywhere, but particularly is obvious in police states. The shooting is instinctive, what we have come to acknowledge as experimental filmmaking, in fact. If we lived in a genuinely creative and free society, we wouldn’t need experimental filmmakers. Nicholas Ray said that experimental cinema is like organic agriculture or participatory democracy. We only need the adjective because there’s something wrong with the noun.

One of the other things that interests me in the questions you’re raising is how it makes me think about the films I was making before this. One of the points of continuity in what I’ve been doing for a while is that I’ve been trying to see what happens when I remove the possibility of someone being in front of the camera who is the main point of identification for the spectator. It’s not an original thing to do but coming from documentary practice, it wasn’t something that was obvious for me. In a lot of these videos, even though there isn’t anybody in front of the camera as a point of identification, there is the person behind it. It’s not a straightforward identification. This kind of subjective camera work in mainstream cinema is associated with characters who are mad or who are about to kill you. There’s something incipiently psychotic about it. If you look at Hollywood cinema, the films that try to use subjective camera generally fail if they try to make it the norm that governs the film. When it works, it’s used briefly or specifically to evoke a non-normal psychological state.
The proposition of our film is, in one sense, what if this kind of identification was normality? If that was normal, we would not be individuals in the way we think we are individuals. We would still be subjects, connected to a very particular position in space and time, but we would not be closed off in the way that individuals are closed off from one another. True, this is a very de-stabilizing experience for the spectator. But maybe that destabilization is a positive thing? Not just psychologically, but politically.

These videos are very human. They are choices that people are making, not merely instinctive reactions to the violence that’s happening around them. You can go out and risk your life once without really thinking about what you’re doing. But if you go out and do it every day, then that’s a real choice. Working with this material has often been very hard, because the material itself is hard. But it’s also been a great honor. What would the cinema be like if it was only made up of shots for which people had been prepared to risk their lives?

I don’t know if I’ll ever make a found footage film again, but making this one has certainly changed not just the way I think about film, but the way I think about and experience my own life, as well.

Pamela Cohn is a filmmaker, curator and freelance arts journalist currently based in Germany and Kosovo.

Peter Snowdon is a director and writer, known for The Uprising (2013), Walking Through Paradise (2010) and Bewick's Mambo (2008).

Tags:
Documentary film
Experimental film
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