Blasts from the Past – Aug ’06 Ibrahim El Batout : Spectacle

Posted: September 28, 2008 in Culture, Entertainment, Journalism, Politics, Society

The Spectacle of Death





Ibrahim Batout covered 12 war zones in his time as a news cameraman. “I wasn’t the kind that would leave then come back whenever a story was in the making, I was really living there. My first war was the Iran-Iraq war, my last was the final war in Iraq.”

“This got me started as a film-maker, because you have a certain margin of freedom in the sense of your portrayal of events, especially with the big TV channels.”


.. . ..




Of the 12 war zones you covered, what was different, what was essentially the same..?


What is common to all these places is that they were the peak of human conflict; wars. It was always the same routine, in a different country. To me the suffering was the same, the blood was the same; all red, whether it was Rwanda or Chechnya. Human and international indifference was the same. Political limitations and oppression was the same. In so many ways it shows that evil has a strong will, and a long arm, in getting its way.



Why did you choose to lead such an existence?


I guess I was seeking answers, and after 18 years I came back home, with still no answers to why humans behave that way towards each other. I guess I was trapped in a vicious cycle of thrill for danger, and professionalism, and more importantly, I was very attached to the people on the ground; they gave me the power and the incentive to reach further and produce better work.


Of course at a young age I believed that my work might make a difference but very quickly I arrived at the reality of the falsehood of that assumption. No matter how many films you make on war zones and conflicts, eventually you realize that its much much deeper than that.. That’s why I came back to Cairo.



So how deep does the rabbit hole go..?


It’s really rough, and especially that I got to witness so many different locations firsthand. It’s oil, it’s drug-trade, religious and political convictions. It’s a conflict of interest, it’s the breaking down of the soviet union, its power, it’s all that.. I believe that human beings are born with a native instinct of conflict, and we project this ability to form conflict even onto our day to day life. So whether it’s a couple fighting or two countries fighting, it’s the same, they possess the same dynamics of fighting. Except that war is the ultimate conflict. And there is never a clearly dividing line to who’s right and who is in the wrong. You can never say that group A had a right to act in such a way, or group B was wrong to do this or that. It’s always mixed up and you always get to learn history through the eyes of the winners. So whatever we hear of that is literally crap [bs], because it is influenced by one side or the other.


What mattered to me the most is how people were coping with these situations. I was born in 1963 in Port Said, we witnessed the 67 war and had to find refuge in Cairo. Mainly my exposure to war at such a tender age drove me to try and understand why there were wars, it was always a question on my mind. I thought that by placing myself in the middle of these conflicts I would find those answers, but like I said before, there were no answers, except that it’s part of us, part of our structure as human beings. It’s like projectors that put on different acts, one of them is wars.



With all the blood, gore and imagery projected on the news to raise our threshold to stomach such imagery, and most of us don’t want to be desensitized in such a manner, one is overcome by a sensation that the news business is becoming a fanciful giant soap opera, a mega-scale production..?


Definitely, that’s why I stopped in my tracks as a news film-maker and came home and started working on features. Actually the moment that brought it all to an end for me was when I was receiving a prize in London in 2003, the Rory Peck award, for film-makers and personnel in war zones. Rory Peck was a colleague of mine, we worked together in Afghanistan and in Bosnia, who ended up being killed in Russia. And while I was waiting to receive my prize they were scrolling through the names of journalists who had been working in the field and died, and I realized that I personally knew 5 of those names. I don’t just mean we knew each other, we worked together, cooked together, shared housing, we were in the same [boat] together. And all the films that won prizes, were nothing but a summation of my cv; from Africa to Palestine, to Afghanistan to Iraq and so forth. It dawned on me that I was doing the same thing over and over again, trapped in a vicious cycle, and in doing so I was feeding this huge machine to no real or felt outcome, positive be it or negative. Just perpetuating this production monster. Always the same script even if the characters may differ.



How do you view those still trapped inside that cycle?


I highly admire them, they are not conscious at all of the cycle they are trapped within, I was not conscious of it myself. But  I made an effort to be conscious and in many ways I had to go through that to be ready for the task I am doing right now.


For example my first film was called ‘the black hole’, a biography, coz essentially that’s what war is. It’s like a dark tunnel, very few manage to make it through to the other side, physically intact, sanity intact. Personally I was injured/shot twice, not to mention psychologically, but now I learned to put these tools to use in what I’m tackling now; I can produce my first independent movie with next to no money, and now my second. It’s just a matter of flowing with the energy, using it to propel you forward, and not getting fixed on a certain standpoint.



So how would you advise the Egyptian viewer that he may find logic to all the content he’s being fed..?


The Egyptian viewer is not even living the moment right now, maybe the moment minus5, but we have not grasped the truth of matters that happened 20 or 30 years ago so have no real foundation to base an opinion or judgment of current events. Egyptians are barely trying to get by everyday life, they can barely conceive events happening around them. So many absurd and ridiculous events have passed in our lives unquestioned, right here touching all of us, yet our lack of understanding and striving for survival allowed them to pass right under our nose. We first have to cope with events and find closure in things that happened in our past to be able to comprehend current affairs.


Half of our society is in hiding, women are locked away behind the veil. They can not enjoy a walk with a breath of fresh air on their skin. We have a deeply-rooted psychology of fear, coupled with corruption dictating our everyday existence. Like any psychologist would advise; we need to age regress ourselves, locate the blocks we have and work past them so that one day we may hope to progress and grow. We all need to start working on our respective individual personas or islands, do our best their before we move on to try and project ourselves unto others and judge what is right and what is wrong.


We are also very detached when it comes to world events, because we are so caught up in our own struggles. Yes, people sympathize with Lebanon and Nasrallah, but wait, there was so much killing in sudan for years, yet no demonstrations of that scale were ever staged. Maybe its because we can relate to the Lebanese on account of their superstars that permeate our everyday life- all the culture, all the songs. Maybe if sudan had a big superstar of that scale we would have staged demonstrations for them as well. You have to admit that we seem, kind of, racist in our sympathy.


In conclusion..?


To me the most important being on earth is the person reading these lines. The importance of the individual in influencing surroundings is unparalleled. How can I grow if my neighbor is stuck somewhere. We need to start working on ourselves that we may rise as a collective.




Published in Ego Vol. 6 Violence Issue – Sep 06







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