A tour in the wild, without leaving your couch

Published first time at Mdamasr:

When I am anxious, or heavy, or feeling — like Mahmoud Darwish — that nothing pleases me, I usually put on a documentary about the lives of lions in central Africa, or wild horses in Mongolia, and I let it play in the background as I try to calm my nerves by writing or reading or indulging in a game on my phone. There’s nothing much to follow in such films; usually the producers pick a geographical location and send a crew to live there for months, and the result is hours of footage of various species coexisting in the same habitat, edited to create some kind of structure and accompanied by the deep voice of a narrator attempting to project human drama on daily life in the wild. 

I’ve watched many nature films by virtue of my years of work in the documentary industry, and even though most of them are pretty similar, and rather redundant, playing them in the background often provides an air of tranquility and a certain delightful languor. However, Netflix’s My Octopus Teacher, which made its debut a couple of months ago, is a welcome divergence from the typical, pre-packaged format of nature documentaries, allowing us an unconventional glimpse into the lives of nature documentarians instead. 

The protagonist is Craig Foster, a filmmaker who spent his life documenting wildlife in south and central Africa with his brother, Tom. Together, the brothers became a prominent duo in the world of nature documentaries, but after two decades working amidst nature — filming the creatures that roam the earth and sky — Craig sank into a work-related depression (an important lesson, reminding us that whatever your profession is, you’re never miserable because of the nature of your work but rather because you have to work in the first place).

Craig returns to his hometown of False Bay, South Africa, where he lives in a house overlooking the water. It is a spot with a rich and diverse marine life, and Craig soon begins a routine of swimming and freediving, until one day he meets a little octopus. The most beautiful thing about this film is that it is free of scenes where creatures devour one another, nor does it covertly focus on the demise of nature at the hands of the human race: it is simply the story of a friendship that develops between a filmmaker and this wondrous octopus. 

Octopuses are shy; they usually hide whenever they sense a foreign presence. But as Craig’s visits become frequent, our little octopus begins to warm up to him. She reaches out an arm one day, and the first touch takes place. Gradually a relationship blooms: one can sense the joy when the two friends meet, and almost hear an intimate dialogue unfold as the octopus’s arms and Craig’s fingers intertwine. 

An important element in the narrative is the tense relationship between Craig and his teenage son. Silence looms like a barrier between both of them, but the boy goes to the beach with his dad and eventually dives with him and meets the octopus too, and a dramatic triangle is formed, heightening the conflict.

The film is emotionally charged, wrapped in a mysterious cloud of poetry. Perhaps it’s simply the color of the bay’s water, but my eyes welled up twice as I watched, and so I warn you: it is not for the faint of heart. In other words, and as they often say in disclaimers, some content may be triggering.  

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However, if you’re not in the mood for a tear-jerker, we recommend another nature documentary, also on Netflix, and that is David Attenborough: A Life on Our Planet. As clear from the title, the film stars the British broadcaster and natural historian made famous worldwide through BBC series such as Life on Earth and later Planet Earth and Life, all of which documented animal and plant life across the globe, from seas and oceans to jungles, swamps and deserts, all the way to the frozen Arctic.  https://www.youtube.com/embed/64R2MYUt394

Here, Sir Attenborough bears witness to shrinking biodiversity and the extinction of animal and plant species as a result of population growth. He gives his own personal account of this transformation, depicting images of locations he visited in the 1940s, and through archival footage from his programs we see how landscapes have gradually changed and certain creatures have ceased to exist as humans multiplied, consumption increased and resources dwindled. Moreover, Attenborough presents an insightful narrative on the rise of green parties and environmental activism as political action, and how this notion that began in the 1960s grew until every active political party had to have an environmental agenda as part of its platform. He also suggests a political solution for saving the planet, and like most western environmental activists, he divides the tasks: citizens of the global North are required to recycle and switch to smart cars, while citizens of the South must sacrifice developmental plans — keep living in mud houses and rely on solar energy — for the sake of maintaining biodiversity and protecting the ecosystem. 

What’s new in the film, however, is that it confronts the audience with the bitter truth: neither industrial activity nor fossil fuels are destroying our planet; overpopulation is. Even if we stop using fuel and plastic and manage to save the sea turtles, life on earth cannot possibly continue with the global population growing at this rate, and so Attenborough’s main proposition is stabilizing it. But while autocratic regimes like the Chinese government have enforced policies to this end through coercion and violence, Sir Attenborough believes that enhancing education and healthcare is the only reasonable and humane way forward, using Japan as a successful example. 

A self-proclaimed leftist, Sir David Attenborough currently has a net worth of US$35 million. He spent his life traveling across the world, visiting more places than one could possibly imagine. If we traced his carbon footprint, it would probably exceed that of an industrial city in central Africa. So I can’t help but envy him for being a son of the Great British Empire, which accumulated such great wealth early on that it could invest in a giant project like the BBC, which in turn funded all of the Sir’s dreams and films. Back when I used to work in documentary filmmaking, I would often pitch projects about wildlife, or sometimes even simple ideas like a short documentary about Egyptian donkeys. Such pitches were always rejected, though, and would often be ridiculed as well, and the channel would instead ask for a film about revenge killings in Upper Egypt, terrorism or the hijab. I eventually gave up my dream of working on nature documentaries, and gave in to envying people like David Attenborough instead as I watched their films. 

Today, I find myself thinking that perhaps the reason why all nature documentaries are so redundant is because, for decades, this industry and format of filmmaking has been monopolized by white, western men. They copy one another without the slightest inkling of shame; we now have almost 100 years’ worth of documentaries all centering on the white explorer in his pith helmet and safari gear. Sometimes he’s in front of the camera, his face red with the effect of the sun, other times he’s behind it and we can only hear his voice, penetrating the landscape as he stealthily spies on the creatures inhabiting it, drowning in his hunter-fantasies of danger and adventure. 

Sometimes, in such films, we catch a glimpse of the land’s native people. For example, in A Life on Our Planet, we see footage of him meeting with a hunter-gatherer tribe in central Africa in the 1950s, presenting them as an example of living in harmony with nature. The camera shows them in the background, like silent extras waiting for the day they’ll hold the camera, reclaiming the right to their land.

About Alaa: Prison isolates and so does your silence

Published first time at Mada: https://madamasr.com/en/2017/10/18/opinion/u/about-alaa-prison-isolates-and-so-does-your-silence/

Editor’s note: 25 days to #FreeAlaa is a campaign led by friends, family and supporters of political prisoner and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, highlighting two outstanding cases against him: One, which was adjourned on October 19 to November 8, concerning the five-year sentence that Abd El Fattah has already served three-and-a-half years of, in relation to a protest outside the Shura Council building in November 2013 against military trials for civilians. The second is a case against him for “insulting the judiciary,” which was adjourned from September 24 until December, in which Abd El Fattah could face a fine and more years in prison.

They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.

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Alaa and Manal 2006 New year EVE

Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.

We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.

The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.

Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?

Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.

After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?

A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.

It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”

Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.

The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?

There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.

Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.

And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.

Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.

Translated by Asmaa Naguib