Egyptians use their mobile phone to record celebrations in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the popular revolt that drove veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak from power, on February 12, 2011. Thousands of Egyptians were still singing and waving flags as dawn broke over a nation reborn, after a popular uprising toppled Mubarak. AFP PHOTO/MOHAMMED ABED
Egyptians use their mobile phones to record celebrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the popular revolt that drove Hosni Mubarak from power in February.

Crowd's videos of Egypt's revolution used for documentary



Many would argue the recent Egyptian revolution saw the role of the photojournalist shift considerably, perhaps permanently, to that of the amateur videographer. Be it the violent clashes in Tahrir Square, the abuse of citizens by security officials or the scenes of jubilation when Mubarak resigned, the footage shown on international news reports or displayed on social media sites to urge more Egyptians on to the streets rarely came from the lenses of professional cameramen. It was the latest example of how advances in technology over decades of conflict coverage have allowed the images gathered to become ever more immediate, and real.

Now that a dictator has been toppled, and had his first day in court, that type of in-your-face footage is getting the formal treatment.

#18DaysInEgypt, which bills itself as "a collaborative documentary project about the revolution", aims to tell the story of Egypt between January 25, when the uprising began, and February 11, when Mubarak stepped down. And it aims to do so using entirely the amateur footage that was shot by ordinary Egyptians, footage that might still be lurking on millions of hard drives, cameras and phones across the country, gathered more formally through an online platform due to launch in the coming weeks.

The non-profit project - another that falls under the "crowdsourced" umbrella, an increasingly popular buzzword in the film industry - is the brainchild of a group of Egyptian and US documentary filmmakers, producers and technology experts.

"It's almost in the spirit of the way it happened," says Yasmin Elayat, one of the project's founders. "It's not one person's voice, it's multifaceted."

Elayat, an Egyptian with expertise in interactive installations, was living and working in the US when the revolution began and says it was her partner Jigar Mehta - a documentary filmmaker and journalist - who originally saw the potential. "He called me on February 11 and asked: 'Have Egyptians been recording things the whole time? Because every photo or video I've seen has people holding some sort of recording device.'"

From there the idea grew. A website was quickly established (www.18daysinEgypt.com) and a call of action was made for people to upload their footage online and tag it on Twitter (hence the hashtag in the project name).

"We received a few hundred submissions, but quickly realised that this wasn't the way to go," admits Elayat.

To open up the submissions process to a broader audience, the team decided they'd need to build the online platform that is to be launched this month.

"It's a collaborative storytelling platform; it allows people to log in and contribute any sort of media that's on any existing social media site or upload things off their own devices."

While much of the coverage seen in the headlines and news reports focused on the activity in Tahrir Square, the hope is that the project will attract submissions from the many under-reported regions.

"We want to know what happened in places like Suez and Sinai," says Elayat. "We all know something happened, but we don't know exactly what. We're aiming for the things that haven't been seen, the stories that people don't realise are stories, like what happened in my local grocery store, or what happened at the security checkpoints."

But with internet penetration low across Egypt, particularly outside the main cities, an offline component is also being developed so the project doesn't have to solely rely on online submissions.

"We're recruiting volunteers and individuals to help us on the ground to collect stories," says Elayat, who is herself now back in Egypt and gathering material.

From these stories, the footage already submitted and the material that will hopefully be uploaded to the new platform, the most compelling will be curated and become part of the #18DaysInEgypt documentary. Once it is launched, the platform will probably be open for one or two months for submissions for the film. But Elayat says that until they're all in, it's difficult to predict how many individual pieces of material will be used or how the film will flow.

"We really don't know what to expect. So far, we've been getting clips that are fascinating, but only around 30 seconds, but also things that are longer and already edited. Ideally, we'd like to have a pool of a few thousand to choose from and curate."

The plan is for #18DaysInEgypt to be screened in Egypt on January 25, 2012. The premiere of a "crowdsourced" film documenting a decidedly "crowdsourced" achievement seems like a rather fitting manner to celebrate its first anniversary.

The platform, however, looks likely to last a while longer. While putting it together, the #18DaysInEgypt team saw that it had far bigger scope than just the 90-minute documentary they first envisaged, and see it as something that can be used to collect all sorts of material.

"What we're imagining for the website is a new way of experiencing a documentary or film. It's not just linear storytelling. It's not just a sequence of videos. It's more dynamic, using all the media that's out there. Plus, we have all these tweets and Facebook updates. I guess what we're trying to create is a new way of consuming news or film."

Elayat says the team is trying to collaborate with the National Archives of Egypt to see if uploaded material can be automatically stored on their database.

"Yes, it's going to help us document those 18 days, but we're seeing it also as a platform for any type of event to tell the story in real-time, as it happened, through the eyes of the people on the streets."

And outside Egypt's borders, there's potential for expansion into other areas where material from the crowd is becoming a dominant form of media.

"It's just a start-up at the moment," says Elayat, "and our first non-profit project is #18DaysinEgypt, but we definitely saw early on that it wasn't something just for political uprisings".

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