The latest documentary by adventure filmmaker Dominic Gill premiered this week on the NBC Sports Network. Once again peddling a tandem bicycle with an empty back seat the British born writer and bike advocate offered up his unique style of storytelling to provide television viewers with a road trip travel log that reveals the real life perspective of ordinary people willing put their apprehensions aside and go for a ride.
Fresh off the highway from his previous project Take a Seat Sharing a Ride across America Gill ventures overseas to bring back stories from a nation in the midst of a revolution. Prompted by the encouragement of his half-Egyptian girlfriend and producer Nadia Boctor Gill and his film team put together an excursion for a TV mini-series they call Take a Seat Egypt.
Traveling thousands of miles across the North African desert Gill invited random strangers to tour their newly liberated homeland. After 30 years under the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak for many this was a rare opportunity to travel freely through Egypt. Their stories as told through this film gives us an intimate look into the hearts and minds of a foreign people as they struggle to find their place in this new democracy.
There’s nothing like a long journey to find answers to complex questions. Recent unrest in the Middle East has those of us here in the west wondering what would prompt once peaceful protests to escalate into violence. The revolution known commonly as the Arab Spring began a wave of democratic reform throughout the region. But in the wake of an attack that resulted in the murder of Chris Stevens the U.S. Ambassador to Libya along with several other embassy staff members we’re left to ask what’s on the minds of common people who rallied in Tahir Square to overthrow a dictator. Take A Seat Egypt offers a brief look into lives of a few from the back seat of a tandem bicycle.
JTP: Why did you decide to do this project in the first place? What prompted you to go to Egypt?
Gill: It’s an excellent way to interact with the world around you and putting yourself on a level playing field with everyone around you irrespective of where you are. In terms of the mode of our project it’s applicable anywhere. So that was never the limiting factor. But when I was in the edit bay and finishing Sharing A Ride Across America, Nada, who’s obviously half Egyptian, kept bugging me about this Egyptian Revolution going on. I was in kind of a news black hole. I really wasn’t paying attention. She clued me in and said we may want to bring the tandem idea over to Egypt. And as you can probably imagine having basically not long before just finished one trip and working every day on the screen I wasn’t that psyched about getting on a tandem again. But as the revolution developed and as she continually talked about it and I got a bit more clued in I realized that it would be a pretty special project and a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall of a country going through that kind of change.
JTP: Was there anything in particular that you were interested in observing or anything you were especially interesest in recording on this trip?
Gill: Given the fact that I hate to be a preacher or come across as a figure of authority really I tried to have almost no agenda going over there. One thing I wanted to do was try in a very kind of laid back way get the energy and the story of the people in the wake of this recent what looked like at the time was a landslide success. And just literally gage the temperature of the country and put a foot into the water and have an adventure and be able to offer one to someone else. I realized that one big difference between going to Egypt and offering my back seat to someone and going across the states, in Egypt this kind of adventure is really rare where you get a lot people now doing a cross country journey in America, there I was absolutely unique.
JTP: Was there anything about having recently become a liberated nation of free citizens that made this experience different?
Gill: Yeah it did. It wasn’t clear cut however as the last few months really settled down. Certainly at the beginning of the journey I noticed this energy that I had never felt before. On and off the bike, it had nothing to do with the bike, just in the people. The people were very…they had a frame of mind that allowed them to believe anything was possible. They had just toppled their dictatorship. I absolutely understand why they had this anything-is-possible invincible feeling. “You’re not happy with something? We’ll change it” because-we-can kind of attitude. It was tough to be around in that it was almost oppressive in its ubiquitousness. So that was a very, very novel experience. Obviously throughout the tree months we were there that feeling actually changed from “We can do anything” to “oh, what do we do now?”
JTP: Does that speak to the recent events that are going on in Libya right now and the whole controversy around the anti-Islamic video that’s caused so much unrest in so many Muslim countries? I guess the real question is did the Arab Spring give the people of the Arab world a different perspective on life?
Gill: It’s interesting that the Arab Spring gave them the feeling that people can change things if they want to. I’m sure that’s very healthy. It’s more health than unhealthy when it comes to leading people to believe that they have power. It also destabilizes stuff. From what we’ve seen then in the wake of the Arab Spring there are a lot of mini uprisings, mini revolutions, manifestations of a lot of different kinds, because it’s like aftershocks of that success. People feel that they can change things. I also think a lot of negative things have gone forward with that. Case in point the U.S. Embassy in Libya. People jump on the bandwagon, but I think some people use it as an excuse to promote their own agenda. In that case it went incredibly negative. The fact that they were blaming it on that film and most of the violence and most of the unrest happened on September the 11th as far as I’m concerned is complete bullshit. But that’s one man’s opinion.
JTP: Do you suppose your film is perhaps a way to offer a more positive view of what’s happening in the Arab world?
Gill: Any sort of political analyst or sociologist who watches my film isn’t going to find anything that breaks their world wide open in terms of enlightenment. But what they will find are very human stories from the people of Egypt who are on the ground that are in the majority that are attending the protests and genuinely want those changes for their country. And however much the news bombards us with this negativity, these embassy busts or stories about the thugs I think this story shows an amicable and passionate people on the ground and in the majority.
JTP: So were you able to get some of that out of the people who were your companions on the bike? Were you able to successfully tell their stories?
Gill: I wasn’t able to tell everyone’s story absolutely. Some of them were on the bike for a day or two. You need a least a day to get to know someone. And obviously with the language barrier I think they were a bit more difficult. But I would say that everyone whether they were a Bedouin guy from the middle of nowhere or if they lived on the side of Tahir square and were there every day of the revolution, everyone had some view and everyone had a story about their country going through changes at that time. And it’s fascinating.
I’m just now editing the last episode and pulling together sound bites. It’s fascinating to see that everyone on the whole that I met had the same view point. And it was this feeling that the revolution is a very good thing, but they’ve only realized of late that it’s very far from over. Each and everyone of them had a story from those first few days, usually involving a kind of mild euphoria and one of the most exciting and impassioned few days of their lives.The people that I in a down-to-earth way have captured in this film. And on the other side of the fence you have administrations or other groups that are jockeying for power.
Whether at the extremist end there’s a kind of Taliban-esque factions, call them what you will, that are trying to get some kind of foothold in this slightly…profiting from the instability of Egypt or bonafide administrations like the Muslim Brotherhood. You can call them what you will but they’re kind of playing by the rules and trying to get a foothold there. The military, maybe even the police are on this other side of the fence and perhaps not with the purest of intentions. They want power. The divide is between the people who want their country to progress and the people who want to gain power in their country. And that is where at some point there is going to have to be a merge. And one hopes that it’s going to be a happier one than the last 30 years of dictatorship. It’s a war of attrition.
JTP: So the people on the bike, did you get the impression that they’re optimistic about how things are going to turn out with that war of attrition with who’s on one side or the other.
Gill: I don’t think I would use the word optimistic. I think I would use the word…They’re not optimistic. They’e become increasingly realistic about how stubborn they’re going to have to be to have their demands met. The time has past where they’ve thought we’ve won. That time existed immediately before I got to Egypt and maybe the first few days while I was there. It’s turned into a much wiser, we’re not going to get what we want unless we are figuratively speaking standing in Tahir Square for another thousand days. So I they’ve now gained from the whole process too much distance to use the word optimistic.
JTP: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from this experience?
Gill: I’ve never been to the Middle East before this trip so you have this very obvious geographical and culture enlightenment. But I think honestly having a half Egyptian girlfriend there’s always a lot of chat about this before I ever went there, especially with Nadia’s father. He’s a phenomenally lovely man, and to hear him and his brothers talk about Egypt he’s very clear and obviously this was cemented when I went over there. Back in the 60s pre-Mubarak-Egypt was a real force to be reckoned with in terms of progression, in terms of academia, in terms of forward thinking. In the last 30 years it has been probably one of the best sociological examples of regression. And whether you see that on a religious perspective the black and white of it is in the 60s women there were wearing mini-skirts. Now girls would be spat at in the street for wearing them. You can say what you like about mini-skirts but to me that seems to symbolize some kind of regression, some cultural regression and I think for what it’s worth, my theory is you look at any country that has been under some kind of powerful reign of negativity of any kind and people turn to religion because they don’t really have much else to believe in. And for me that really struck me when I went over there to see, to know that years ago it was like Europe in many, many ways and now the number of people wearing traditional clothing of all sorts has risen. And the amount of liberal thinking going on has gotten less.
JTP: It seems so odd to me that things have gotten to be so conservative and I’m wondering what causes that?
Gill: I guess it takes a dictatorship for people to be conservative, for people not to stray outside of the narrow lines. So I guess in that sense it would have been encouraged by 30 years of Hosni Mubarak. And on the other side of the fence if people really find it hard to believe in anything, one thing that they can count on is a very orthodox and very easy to understand regulated belief structure and that if nothing else is made possible by religion. I guess almost like when there’s a natural disaster in the states, turning to God is something that people do increasingly. I would see the 30 years of dictatorship in Egypt to be a low grade chronic form of that.