Sergei Eisenstein’s immortal Battleship Potemkin begins with sailors eating maggoty food and ends with many of those exact same sailors cheering the revolution as their fellows decide to join them in open revolt against the Tsarist regime. Ken Loach’s magnificent ode to the Spanish Civil War Land and Freedom contains oodles of dead fascists and Spanish peasants finally getting a say in how to work their own fields but it ends with the granddaughter of a dead veteran giving a sad but defiant raised fist salute. These cinematic accounts of real-world revolutions may be brilliant, maudlin, triumphalist and manipulative but one thing they are not is quiet. By this measure alone, Ibrahim El Batout’s Winter of Discontent is something entirely unique: a quiet film about revolution. Set in Egypt in the winter of 2011, Winter of Discontent follows a group of people whose lives cross and cross again as protests turn to riots and riots end by toppling the regime of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
The film opens on a small Cairo apartment with a set of windows that open onto a wall. On the balcony outside these windows is a dead potted plant, in the distance we can hear chanting protesters. The man who lives in this apartment (Amr Waked) is obviously interested in politics but afraid of getting involved. Furtively glancing at Youtube videos describing the torture of his fellow citizens, he asks his neighbour to buy food for the entire building: Things are going to get worse before they get any better.
On the other side of town, a TV presenter (Farah Youssef) is preparing to interview government officials as part of a sinister-sounding “Police Day”. The government officials are wearing uniforms and complaining about punk kids in cut-off shorts. The presenter is told not to ask any questions about the protests… it is her job to calm people down and discussing the protests would only get people worried and agitated.
In a government building, a man in an open-necked shirt and jeans (Salah Hanafy) uses his expensive Apple computer to watch CCTV footage of a prisoner pissing himself. He smiles quietly to himself as he locks a priest in an office and forces him to keep drinking water until he too pisses himself. The priest understands: He now knows how the security forces operate and he promises not to speak out against the government at Friday prayers. The man in jeans is content, he does his job and he earns his living well.
Shot almost entirely at night in a series of cramped apartments and offices, Winter of Discontent works hard to recreate the feelings of oppressive isolation that keep people at home when they should be out throwing rocks at police. Permanently lost and separated from the people they love, the protagonists keep trying to protect themselves but the regime’s demands eventually become so psychotic and paranoid that even respectable members of the middle-class realise that they have nothing to lose by getting involved. Indeed, El Batout’s vision of the Egyptian Revolution is explicitly middle-class and all the more powerful for that fact.
Films like Battleship Potemkin go out of their way to show the blood-drenched atrocities that lead to revolution because they hope to awaken the revolutionary consciousness of their audiences. Winter of Discontent instead works from the assumption that most middle-class people will be protected from the worst of the fighting and so focuses instead on the increasingly psychotic behaviour of the Mubarak regime and how sufficient numbers of power cuts, soiled trousers, workplace meltdowns and destroyed toilets can turn even reasonable middle-class people against their government. Push hard enough and even the privileged will come to realise that they have nothing to lose.
El Batout describes the road to revolution in an almost exclusively non-verbal fashion. His characters may be trapped in offices and apartments but the distant chanting of the protestors guide them through the darkness and into the brilliant light of Tahrir Square that is only shown at the very end of the film. It is only once the film has ended that we are told how many people died, how many people lost their sight and how many people were arrested and tortured in the days prior to and following Mubarak’s resignation. Bar one scene of electrocution (which is then cleverly deconstructed), we are never shown the atrocities of the Mubarak regime, we are told about them using white script on a pitch-black background.
Despite being brilliantly made and incredibly evocative, Winter of Discontent is let down by its human elements. Captured in a series of only loosely connected scenes, the three characters never seem like anything more than ballast for El Batout’s visual storytelling: The torturer is wealthy and evil, the apartment owner is a noble everyman and the TV presenter realises that she made a terrible mistake by working as the regime’s mouthpiece. Suitably well portrayed by an all-Egyptian cast, these characters lack substance and could have been used to explore different and nuanced facets of the same revolution. Equally disappointing is the interview with two of the main members of the cast that completely avoids all political topics in favour of entirely pointless and long-winded discussions about how they came to be involved in the project. If ever there was a film that cried out for a wider political context it was this one.
Despite flawed characterisation and anaemic personal drama, Winter of Discontent remains an evocative film that explores important real-world events in a refreshingly different manner. Turns out that not all films about revolution need to be loud.