Filmmaker-scholar Viola Shafik tries to process the ups and downs of Egypt’s recent upheavals via four unconnected strands in “Scent of Revolution,” yet it seems even she knows her attempt to deliver something cohesive will flounder. The film springs from a docu on rampant corruption in Luxor which she began before Hosni Mubarak’s ouster; burdened by the crushed hopes of subsequent months, she’s tried to make sense of her feelings of betrayal, contextualizing what she shot and weaving it together with other elements. The components don’t coalesce, but there’s much food for thought amid the tangle, suitable for focused screenings with discussions following.
“This is not the film I wanted to make,” Shafik says in voiceover, admitting that depression over a seemingly squandered Revolution has hampered her creative output. In 2010 she began a docu about Luxor, where forced relocations committed in the name of archeological excavation and conservation were really a way of channeling money into the hands of crooked developers and politicos. Collector-researcher Francis Amin Mohareb has the largest archive in Egypt of historic negatives, housed in his chaotic Luxor home, yet the authorities are uninterested in preserving buildings, let alone photographs. The outrageous destruction of Coptic notable Yassin Andraus Pasha’s villa is but one of many such stories in a city where initial archeological excavations have become garbage dumps.
Unexpected activist Safwat Samaan adds to the story, showing how impoverished villages, many of Coptic origin, were uprooted under false pretenses; the displaced populations have been housed in substandard buildings, while the original locations lie vacant or are slated for developments that have nothing to do with preserving ancient sites. The Revolution changed nothing, Samaan says, and no lessons were learned from the 2009 Nag Hammadi massacre, as testified by those witnessing the 2013 attack on Copts in the village of Al Dabaya.
Shafik finds a sympathetic mind in Alaa El-Dib, a leftist writer whose 1978 novella “Lemon Blossoms,” set in the years following the Nasser Revolution, features a disillusioned activist cognizant that the values he fought for were betrayed by corruption and the consolidation of power. Lemon blossoms are metaphors: On the tree they’re fresh and beautiful, but once they fall, the flowers disintegrate and mix with the dust. For both El-Dib and Shafik, the parallels with Egypt’s revolutions are clear — the blooms have withered, their memory and perfume a taunting reminder of might-have-beens.
The fourth strand features 3D graphic designer Awatef Mahmoud, the hijab-wearing creator of a virtual Tahrir Square via Second Life, an online world that allows people to create avatars that go places their real selves can’t visit. An example: Mahmoud speaks to a Salafist friend who would never be allowed to show herself in Tahrir Square, but in Second Life, she can participate with like-minded people. There’s much in this idea to explore, not least of which the chilling “Matrix”-like belief that virtual involvement can replace lived experiences. Convinced that she’s giving people freedom, Mahmoud and her website further the fragmentation of society via the placebo of social media.
The disturbing message must have struck Shafik, who then decided to shoehorn it into “Scent of Revolution,” but unfortunately the various components don’t work together, and it’s unlikely a re-edit would help matters. The docu is marbled with scenes from the 2011 uprising, providing a poignant reminder of hopes dashed — indeed, El-Dib speaks of Pandora’s box, and Hope’s late escape from that container of woes. For Shafik and others, Hope has been dispersed in the ferment of embittered disenchantment that came in the Revolution’s wake, and putting the pieces together again is as Sisyphean a task as hunting down Pandora’s wayward scourges. Much like turning multifaceted disappointments into a cohesive docu.