Anna Roussillon’s I Am the People was the 2015 winner of the John Marshall Award for Contemporary Ethnographic Media, as well as its first, as the award was inaugurated last year at the Camden International Film Festival in Camden, Maine. It’s a rather simple and straightforward film in terms of its narrative style, which features minimal intrusion of the filmmaker’s voice, except to respond to questions (usually with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’) or to probe its central characters. But its social and political undertones strike at the heart of democracy and freedom as it is conceived by ourselves and others.
It’s worth noting the history from which the John Marshall Award for Ethnographic Media comes, and why I Am the People has been chosen to uphold such a legacy. The award takes its name, as one might guess, from filmmaker John Marshall, who was a pioneer of the ethnographic film genre. Taken on many expeditions to the remote Kalahari Desert, in what is now Namibia, by his anthropologist parents throughout the 1950s, Marshall was tasked with depicting through film the customs, social relations, and overall culture that his parents were trying to understand and convey to the (Western) world. What first began as a purely observational tool to supplement written ethnography – as his parents wished – turned into a half-century exploration of the !Kung people through a number of films documenting their culture. His most sprawling work on the Ju/‘hoansi, a group of !Kung bushmen and women from an area called Nyae Nyae, was the epic six-hour series A Kalahari Family; it also happened to be his last work.
Marshall’s extensive work documenting the culture of the Ju/‘hoansi stands out because of his growing commitment – which becomes increasingly visible in his films – to this community as an activist and advocate rather than a bystander with a camera, documenting the rapid changes that modernization brought to their society without doing anything about it. His filming became a way of not only exposing a great injustice being done to a way of life and culture, but also the establishment of a more harmonious mode of communication between community and individual. The legacy of John Marshall and other filmmakers like him is especially relevant to me because my discovery of such work reinvigorated a passion for cinema that had been dwindling for some time. Although much of that was entirely my fault – if I had tried even a little bit to look for it, I could have found something – it nevertheless made a timely impact. The creative pulse of such films, combined with their educational power, was inspiring, and the fact that much of this history originated right here in Boston – where Marshall was born and where he lived much of his life – was a surprise.
Roussillon may not have been trying to follow in the footsteps of Marshall per se, but the influence is clear, as well as the ways in which I Am the People forges a new way of conceptualizing the relationship between subject and camera.
The credits appear alongside an audio track before we see the first images of the film, but already we’re given plenty amount of information to set the stage: the sound of goats and sheep, the clinking of the bells they wear, and the voice of a woman who seems to be yelling across an unseen expanse of space. When she appears, sitting cross-legged in the shade of a tree and looking at something off-screen, it becomes clear that she must have been calling to someone, perhaps that same person at whom she’s looking. This woman, whose name might not have been said in the film or which escaped my attention, is one of the most outspoken characters of the film, aside from Farraj, with whose family Roussillon stayed and became close over the duration of several years in Egypt following the Arab Spring. But this woman from the opening scene – who isn’t Farraj’s wife, as one might guess – was really the only woman who opened up to Roussillon and allowed direct interviews, as the filmmaker recounted during the Q&A Monday night at the Brattle. Roussillon returns to her many times throughout the film, seeking her thoughts on each new political development that unfolds in this turbulent period.
The political events that surround I Am the People – Roussillon was careful to point out that the film is not about these events per se, but they are nevertheless very close to it, bubbling around the edges – took place just around the time when Roussillon was beginning to film Farraj’s family. Footage of a Skype interview with Farraj provides an instance in which Roussillon’s voice is revealed. She expresses her desire to return to Egypt, which she has left just before the “Friday of Anger” protests erupted and, in a sense, formalized the revolution from a series of protests to a large, organized and prolonged action. Farraj tries to tell Roussillon about what’s happening but she challenges him, claiming bias from the media and the spread of unreliable information by Mubarak’s regime. She encourages him to stay tuned to Al-Jazeera, whose trusted reporting is returned to many times throughout the film. While we’re encouraged to celebrate Al-Jazeera’s commitment to truth, and the pursuit of reliable journalism in general, it’s easy to forget that Roussillon is doing a kind of journalism herself.
As clarified in the post-screening Q&A, Roussillon purposely chose the peripheral location of a rural community, far removed from the chaos of Tahrir Square, rather than joining the action in Cairo. Her aim was to dispel the notion that the dispossessed and impoverished are ignorant, have no conception of political ideology, or cannot engage with these ideas actively. Farraj is the ideal kind of candidate to dispute such ideas; his astute observations of the political climate are shared readily and at ease, usually while he’s reclined, talking over the faint sound of a television program playing in the background.
When the first round of votes in the 2012 presidential election are counted, Farraj appears to critique the dichotomous nature of electoral politics, lamenting that “both options are bitter” for him in the absence of a constitutional basis delineating presidential powers. He is wholly supportive of Morsi – though wary of the Muslim Brotherhood – because of Morsi’s status as a civilian, and his representation of a new beginning. He states plainly – which now looks like a solemn premonition of what was to come – that whether or not Morsi’s opponent, Ahmed Shafik, got the votes, his presidential win was inevitable because of his support from the army (who ended up taking over Morsi’s post in a military coup). He knows Egypt’s militaristic political history and speaks in favor of a form of local governance in which civilians hold positions of power. The right to demonstrate and protest is very important to him, as he explains that the first strike in Egypt was led by workers of an ancient temple built to hold the tomb of pharaoh Ramesses III. As a peasant – and Roussillon made it clear that he does consider himself a peasant – he claims this history as his own and asserts his own version of class consciousness. During a dispute over Morsi with a friend and neighbor he also reveals a certain self-consciousness, an awareness that peasants like him are thought to be removed from the political process: “All I know is flour, nothing else. Think of me as ignorant and illiterate.”
This formation, which we’re witnessing, of a heightened critical, class, and political consciousness was another explicit goal of Roussillon’s in bringing I Am the People to (Western) audiences. One could argue that it was there all along, and would have emerged in Farraj without her provocation; but it is far more interesting to watch it unfold.
Returning time and time again to a still shot of the family’s TV set, Roussillon also establishes a contrast – as distinct as the one between the TV’s lo-fi, pixelated, harsh palate of colors (the apparatus seems like it’s from the ’90s or before) and the warm tones of the surrounding room – between forms of technology and political participation. While the differences between watching and participating is explicitly made, in reality Roussillon seeks to break open and diminish that idea. Further, the ubiquity of the TV, even in remote areas such as this, obscures the other material deficiencies that are apparent. Gas becomes increasingly scarce and raises in price, threatening basic necessities like the use of ovens to bake bread; villagers struggle to irrigate their lands with the use of a mechanical water pumper which is old and rusted; power outages occur at random. These things reinforce the importance of remaining engaged and staying on top of the news, to enact some degree of individual influence.
Roussillon’s camera stays mostly still, reflecting the tranquil, slow-paced life in Farraj’s community. Staying behind the camera at all times, she commands a kind of controlled energy that elicits honesty and charisma from the two main characters of the film, and whoever else is willing to trust her, like Farraj’s children. An audience member lauded this ease of interaction, which applied equitably to people of all ages. I Am the People ends up telling an effective, powerful story precisely because Rousillon controls her degree of self-involvement, letting people speak for themselves while not entirely concealing herself or her beliefs – it would be unfair to do so. It’s not just a story about Farraj and the changing face of political awareness in Egypt; it is about Roussillon’s relationship of mutual trust with him and a growing intimacy she gains with the workings of his life. The pinnacle of this relationship is reached towards the end of the film, when Farraj tells her she must be buried there so that his family and the community may visit her.
Her willingness to challenge beliefs on-screen, to ask ‘What do you really think?’ ‘What do you really want?’ of Farraj and others, to prod them when other filmmakers might stay silent or stop shooting, creates a dynamic that in many ways was unexpected at the outset of the film. Roussillon’s method of access, both political and personal, serves to close the gap between these two concepts; the personal is the political, as it has been said. Her political commitment to Farraj and his family is a personal one, asserting that the strengthening of human connections is perhaps one of the most desirable, or attainable, goals of revolution.
I Am the People
dir. Anna Roussillon
Screened Monday, 10/24 @ Brattle Theatre, with director Roussillon in attendance
Presented by The DocYard