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Arab revolutions captured in YouTube-inspired film directed by Peter Snowdon

Northumberland-born film director Peter Snowdon is giving a festival platform to those who risked their lives to document Arab uprisings

Natalia Kolesova Film-maker Peter Snowdon who comes from Northumberland
Film-maker Peter Snowdon who comes from Northumberland

Most of the feature films shown at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival this week will have started with a script, a chosen cast and crew and a wish list of props and locations. Overseeing it all will have been a director with a vision.

In the case of The Uprising, likely to be one of the most gut-wrenching of the week’s screen offerings, the process was somewhat different.

From the above list, only the director was present when the film started to take shape. He was award-winning Peter Snowdon who was born and brought up in Northumberland.

The Uprising is a 78-minute feature film fashioned from about 100 YouTube videos – all made and uploaded by people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain who participated or were caught up in the recent uprisings across the Arab world.

It was footage gathered on the hoof and in the midst of revolutionary tumult.

The action is real, the people we see are not actors or even ‘extras’ and the violence and the emotions – the fervour, the anger, the fear – are completely authentic.

“I think it’s quite hard to watch in some ways,” says Peter. “There are moments of great violence but I think – I hope – viewers will be carried along by the energy.

“The people in the film are always moving and there’s a constant sense of things happening.

“I want people watching the film to ask themselves, ‘What would I be prepared to do to in such circumstances?’ You have to remember that for each shot in this film, someone with a camera risked their life.”

The Uprising, Peter has explained, was “essentially created as a zero budget project over the space of two years of research and editing”.

He adds that all his material came from film-makers, mostly anonymous for safety reasons, who were working not for money or glory but to try to change their country for the better.

Thanks to these people armed with the tools of social media, marches and confrontations have happened in full view of anyone in the world with access to a laptop or a smartphone.

Blissful ignorance has become a relatively rare commodity.

Peter says: “I’d never done anything like this before but originally I wasn’t planning to make a film. I used to live in Egypt, from 1997 to 2000, and I was following events because I have friends there.

“I wanted to find out how they were getting on and they were very excited. I started watching YouTube films circulating on-line and I thought they were an amazing depiction of what was happening, just people filming what was going on around them without any thought of making a film.

“Some of the clips were very exciting and some were very painful. I started collecting the URLs of these YouTube videos to share with friends and then I had an opportunity to show some of them on a big screen in Paris.

“I thought they would look terrible on a big screen but they looked amazing and people responded very positively.”

Peter decided to give the fragments of footage a wider audience and so embarked on a process of fashioning a visual narrative.

The result, rather than a chronological account of events, is an imaginary pan-Arab uprising where – as Peter explains – a stone hurled in Syria might land in Egypt. The aim was to give rhythm and structure to umpteen disconnected fragments.

Peter worked on The Uprising with his regular collaborator, director, editor and producer Bruno Tracq, sound designer Olivier Touche and Newcastle-based Third Films, run by Samm Haillay and Duane Hopkins.

“I must have seen thousands of hours of video and downloaded hundreds of hours,” says Peter. “It was a very long editorial process.”

A still from The Uprising by Peter Snowdon
A still from The Uprising by Peter Snowdon

He adds that he “didn’t want to make a film that would make people feel betrayed”. He had gauged the reaction of viewers in three Egyptian cities and found the response to be “genuinely positive”.

Speeding over the details over his own life, he says he was born in Corbridge, grew up in Ponteland and went to school in Newcastle. He studied French and philosophy at Oxford and then “started writing plays because I thought I wanted to be a writer of some sort.

“I ended up living in Paris and decided I didn’t want to do that. I’d always loved film but thought you needed a lot of money to do that.”

He then went to Egypt and got a job on a newspaper. This period of his life was “life-changing”, opening his eyes to a different culture and inspiring him to start “playing with a camera”.

Having returned to Europe and settled in Belgium, he went “back to school”, studying for a Masters in film-making.

Recently he has been studying for a “practice-based PhD” based on his most recent film which marks a step away from his earlier documentary work inspired by travels in places such as India and the Palestinian territories.

Earlier this month, however, he moved again – this time to Scotland where is setting up a Masters course in film-making at the University of West Scotland, which has campuses in Ayr, Dumfries, Hamilton and Paisley.

From there has been able to see a different type of campaign for a different type of change, all leading up to Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence.

The vote falls the day before Friday’s 6pm screening of The Uprising at The Maltings Theatre & Cinema, Berwick, which is to be followed by a question-and-answer session involving Peter and producer Samm Haillay.

Eventually, says Peter, he would like to make The Uprising available to all online. For the moment, though, it is travelling the world on the festival circuit, drumming up the publicity that will ensure it will eventually stand out in the internet jungle.

The 10th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, with its theme Border Crossing, opens on Wednesday. For information and ticket details, visit www.berwickfilm-artsfest.com

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