‘Words of Witness’: To Be Young, Female and Revolutionary

New film captures Heba Afify reporting from the center of Egypt’s political storm.

Egyptian journalist Heba Afify walks streets with notepad in hand.

Egyptian journalist Heba Afify fuses old-fashioned reporting skills with social media reach. (Photo: Courtesy of Iskander Films)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

With a political situation more fluid than the Nile, any film about Egypt runs the risk of being passé before it’s finished shooting.

However, Words of Witness, a new documentary that recently debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival and will screen this weekend at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in New York, stays ahead of the curve with a portrait of journalist Heba Afify.

In one sequence, Afify sneaks into State Security headquarters 22 days after the fall of Hosni Mubarak to collect bundles of long-suppressed information.

Afify is a hard-charging, 22-year-old female reporter for the independent newspaper Almasry Alyoum. Her embrace of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. allows her to go beyond reporting on “the evolving consciousness of Egyptians.” In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, she makes fellow Egyptians conscious of events as stories actually evolve.

Even without a MacBook Pro at the ready, Afify is a symbol of a new age in Egypt. A young woman at odds with the traditional image of Egyptian women in the Western world, Afify is, on one hand, a girly girl under a hijab. She takes notes in pink ink and tells her mother to check out a story of hers because “it’s the bomb.” At the same time, she’s unafraid to go anywhere or speak to anyone in the great tradition of determined muckrakers.

(In one telling scene from Words of Witness, she explains, “I can’t abide by the rules of being an Egyptian girl if I want to be a good reporter.”)

The seeming contrasts in Heba Afify’s character are part of what convinced filmmaker Mai Iskander to make the young journalist the central subject of Words of Witness. Originally, the film was intended to show the variety of women in Egypt, following the lead of the director’s acclaimed 2009 film, Garbage Dreams. Garbage Dreams centered on a trio of young men hoping to make a living in a village outside of Cairo by collecting trash to recycle.

“People in Egypt are very diverse in terms of culture and religion. In order to find three women to represent a larger cross-section of women in Egypt, it was impossible,” Iskander tells TakePart. “So I ended up just following one who also had access to all of the events in Egypt.”

Afify tracks the country’s historic strides toward democracy from Tahrir Square to, in one riveting sequence, sneaking into State Security headquarters 22 days after the fall of Hosni Mubarak to collect bundles of long-suppressed information.   

“She’s really part of this whole kind of crowdsourcing journalism that became so important and significant in making the revolution happen,” says Iskander, noting that Afify became a guide for much more than the film when she sussed out plans by the Army—after being championed by the people—to take over the government.

With the country’s fate very much in flux, Iskander has changed the ending of her film since it premiered in Berlin in February, adding new footage of recent presidential elections. Still, she hopes that the story isn’t over just yet, not only in Egypt, but in other parts of the world—including America.

“I want people to really think about what it means to have a democracy and realize what people give up in order to have the right to participate,” says Iskander, who currently is raising funds on Kickstarter to help take the film on a 50-campus tour with Rock the Vote this fall. “We all need to be politically active and take responsibility for the country and the government that we live in.”

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