By Joseph Fahim
The smothering injustices, poverty, frustration and despair that transformed the large January 25 protest into a revolution are embedded in every frame of Emad Ernest’s “Leather Chairs,” a documentary which premiered on Saturday at the Cairo Opera House’s Artistic Creativity Center.
Conceived a few months before the Jan. 25 protests, Ernest’s 11th short feature traces the abject conditions of water supply and aquaculture in Ismalia and Suez, a topic he began exploring in 2010’s “What Is the Matter?”
As a snap-shot of Mubarak’s Egypt taken from a place that rarely made it to the front pages, “Leather Chairs” succeeds to some extent. But as a work of art or a piece of journalism, it doesn’t quite make it and ultimately it emerges as another example of the sorry state of Egyptian documentaries (and, by default) journalism.
The title of the film is an allusion to the mendacious and incompetent ministers and officials who caused the suffering of millions of denizens in the two aforementioned governorates by turning them into large disease-infested swamp of sewage.
The film opens in the summer of 2009 when water was cut off from a Suez village for three months. The incessant complaints led nowhere, forcing the village’s residents to block transportation to make themselves heard. The consequences are well-documented: the poor struggled for months to acquire clean drinking water while villagers lost their business as the land dried up.
Ernest traces the roots of the problem to the dysfunctional sewage system which itself, as he gradually reveals, is part of a failed infrastructure that was bound to collapse.
Typical of the Mubarak regime, the government did not move to contain this calamity, throwing a bone to the people in the shape of quick, obsolete solutions without attempting to address the fundamental core of the problem. The few decent bureaucrats who dared to stand up for the people and confront the regime, as the interviewees stress, were exiled. The MPs are always absent, showing up only around election time.
In the grand scheme of things, the fishermen had no chance. The pollution caused by the unchecked fuel and waste spill of ships kills marine life every day, disrupting the entire eco-system in the process and depriving thousands of workers in the fishing industry from their livelihoods. The toothless Ministry of Environment, as always, leaves things to run amok.
The large void the government left in Ismalia and Suez has led to the rise of middlemen — volunteers unaffiliated with the government who, in theory, act as a bridge between the officials and the people. Do they get the job done? No one quite knows. NGOs emerge the sole voice of reason in this black comedy, but their programs are never implemented, obstructed by administrators who refuse to give them license.
Millions of pounds directed to enhance the infrastructure of those two cities went missing, same goes for part of the USAID directed to tackle the sewage system problem.
Ernest depicts this crisis as a predictable standard accumulation of the government policies (or lack thereof). A sense of chaos pervades throughout, exemplified in people’s quixotic endeavors to relieve their misery. At one point, an elderly woman screams, “we’re fed up and we don’t know what to do.” A revolution, it seems palpable now, was inevitable.
Unfortunately, Ernest’s humble treatment of the issue doesn’t make for a memorable viewing. “Leather Chairs” is sloppily researched, lacking any statistics or concrete facts. As a piece of investigative journalism, the film is extremely subjective, relying solely on the testimonials of the residents. For the lay viewer, this unwarrantable gaffe puts the director’s credibility into question.
Ernest doesn’t allow the government side to explain its position and thus eliminates the most vital component of storytelling: conflict. Unlike the recent masterful documentaries of Alex Gibney or Charles Ferguson, “Leather Chairs” contains no narrative to hold the haphazardly-laid out data together in a proper context. He meanders along the coasts and slums of Suez and Ismalia pointing his camera to anyone and everyone willing to talk.
It’s not even that the film has a point of view, it doesn’t. The sound bites of people expressing their frustration populate the film; there are no personal stories in here to dramatize and magnify the problem: just random residents, fishermen and villagers complaining about the situation at hand.
The handful of symbolic images on display — set to a monotonous, irritatingly overbearing score by neoclassical Australian duo Dead Can Dance — are uninspiring: multiple shots of an empty forest, newspaper headlines projected on plush empty leather seats…etc. Ernest focuses his camera on the numerous signs of poverty that, regrettably, lose their impact by the end of the film.
The surrealistic, Kafkaesque feeling of absurdity of the entire system is a crucial aspect Ernest’s exceedingly conservative and narrow-minded filmmaking fails to recognize. Even with a low budget, there were numerous interesting angles from which to tackle this story, but Ernest, like many documentary filmmakers before him, chose the easiest and the laziest.