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Meet the DocuWeeks Filmmakers: Mai Iskander--'Words of Witness'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeks™ Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from August 3 through August 30 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films—the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Mai Iskander, director/producer of Words of Witness.

Synopsis: Every time 22-year-old Heba Afify heads out to cover the historical events shaping her country's future, her mother is compelled to remind her, "I know you are a journalist, but you're still a girl!" Defying cultural norms and family expectations, Heba takes to the streets to report on an Egypt in turmoil, using tweets, texts and Facebook posts. Her coming of age, political awakening, and the disillusionment that follows mirrors that of a nation seeking the freedom to shape its own destiny, dignity and democracy.



IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Mai Iskander: Shortly after graduating from New York University Tisch School of the Arts, I started working as a camera assistant for the Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek (Amadeus; Ragtime). As a camera assistant, I worked on over a dozen features, such as Men in Black and As Good as It Gets, and over a hundred commercials and music videos. 

I had the opportunity to work with the cinematographer Tami Reiker (High Art); she was the first female cinematographer I had worked for, and she really encouraged me to start shooting. I bought her trusted old (but very cranky) 16mm camera and started hiring myself out as a cameraperson.

I shot numerous shorts; TV shows for A&E, PBS and LOGO; commercials and documentaries. After a few years of working as a cinematographer, I embarked on producing, directing and shooting my first documentary, Garbage Dreams. Garbage Dreams was a labor of love that took four years to make. I filmed three teenage boys who were born into the trash trade, growing up and becoming men. Garbage Dreams premiered at SXSW in 2009 and aired on PBS' Independent Lens. One of the biggest honors was Garbage Dreams receiving the Humanitas Award from the International Documentary Association.


IDA: What inspired you to make Words of Witness?

MI: When I first heard about the protests sweeping across Egypt, it all seemed surreal. I received the news from the TV set and from my family in Egypt, who are what I call "armchair revolutionaries," watching the uprising from the safety of their living rooms.    

I arrived to an Egypt in turmoil, just days before the ouster of [President Hosni] Mubarak. Through friends in the media, who run the production company Birthmark Films, I was introduced to Heba Afify, a pioneering young journalist. I was inspired by Heba's complete commitment to her work, and her courage. Here is someone so very young, putting her own life at risk, facing tear gas and police batons, to report the news and be at the forefront of the change that was sweeping her country.


IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

MI: The first obstacle I encountered was having my cameras confiscated on my arrival to Egypt. Luckily, Birthmark Films had secured a few cameras for us to work with until I was able to release my cameras from customs. Everything in Egypt then was very chaotic and there were many stories unfolding at once. It was hard to figure out what to follow and whom to follow. It was very challenging to enter such a tumultuous environment and commit oneself to one story, and be open to that story evolving and changing.


IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

MI:I did not really have a clear vision for the film. The story of Egypt's fight for democracy was unfolding in front of me and the rest of the world.

Amid the euphoria of Mubarak's departure, Egyptian people started to wonder, What would democracy look like in Egypt? Everyone seemed to have a vision of a democracy but there was no roadmap for the difficult transition. Moreover, who would lead?

Like other Egyptian youth, Heba started to think about authority in a radically different way and made her own personal pledges of change. Her traditional mother, while proud of her daughter's career as a journalist, didn't want Heba to stay out late or put herself in harm's way. But for Heba, during the Revolution, all the rules were broken. "My mother needs to understand that the rules that were broken during the Revolution will remain broken" she claims.

In the paternalistic culture of Egypt, "the father" Mubarak was synonymous with the government. For generations, he was an authority figure to be feared and obeyed. The Egyptians, unaccustomed to being "leaderless," were unsure how to carry on and what would happen next. No one expected change to take so long. Heba explains, "There's fear, anxiety and hope. Just the enormity of not knowing where this Revolution is going to lead to."   

But in the midst of all this turmoil and confusion, I witnessed a change in the country's psyche. The discussion was no longer about the ruler and the ruled-two distinct and oppositional forces. To make this distinction, to create a role for themselves that went beyond the idea of "the ruled," was bold thinking.  

Egyptians showed the world that the first step in making a country better is to for the people to lead the change. And this is the story that continues to unfold in Egypt.


IDA: As you've screened Words of Witness—whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms—how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

MI: At our screenings, it has been incredibly rewarding to have young audience members say that Heba's story has inspired them. They wanted to know how they can become more politically involved.

The Arab Spring opened a new world of activity, imagination and possibility. Despite the cultural, linguistic and societal differences and miles that separate Egypt and the United States, there is at least one universal truth: Citizens need to "lead themselves" to create the change they are seeking.


IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

MI: I love all of the Maysles' movies and their cinema vérité approach to documentary filmmaking. I followed that approach when I was filming. Once I started editing, the film seemed to create itself.


Words of Witness will be screening August 17 through 23 at the IFC Center in New York City and August 24 through 30 at the Laemmle NoHo 7 in Los Angeles.

For the complete DocuWeeksTM 2012 program, click here.

To purchase tickets for Words of Witness in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for Words of Witness in Los Angeles, click here.