An Interview with Jigar Mehta

“For the first time in history, citizens are recording an actual revolution in real time. Throughout the 18 days of the 2011 uprising—in the year since—and now—Egyptians are filming pivotal events on their cell phones, taking pictures, texting, tweeting and facebooking their extraordinary bid for freedom. Now, “18 Days in Egypt”, the collaborative documentary project, aims to capture the events of the revolution right here… in an interactive documentary website that everyone can access now and into the future.”

In the run up to today’s anniversary, last week saw the launch of the website for 18 Days in Egypt - the collaborative online documentary project about the Egyptian Revolution announced early last year (Posts Sept 11, Nov 11). I recently talked to 18 Days co-creator Jigar Mehta about how he’s approaching this work-in-progress which seeks to tell the story of the uprising through the media produced by those those who were there.

Mehta was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University a year ago when he was struck by the potential of all the media content that was being created by the revolutionaries in Egypt, ” The original idea was, how could we create a documentary that would be more innovative using that media? And that’s where ‘18 Days in Egypt’ started.” In the first instance Mehta and Egyptian co-creator Yasmin Elayat imagined they would make a composite film, in the mould of Life in a Day, “a traditional documentary crafted from social media or from contributions”. They then became interested in the potential of the content that already existed not as building blocks for a linear film but as a route to deeper exploration of the events by those involved, “a person’s electronic footprint is the first draft of their own history, and it can create a really rich starting point for storytelling.”

Supported by an award from the Tribeca New Media Fund, the first stage of the project has been about creating an architecture that allows contribution. Mehta has spent a lot of time the past few months in Copenhagen developing GroupStre.am, a platform for collaborative storytelling, which enables people to tell the story of a particular moment or incident by drawing together their own content from social media accounts using public APIs, adding more context or commentary if desired. The platform looks neat, and group storytelling is intrinsic to the proposition. In any story you file you are asked who was there with you, and those people will be alerted via their social media accounts (assuming they have them), and can contribute too. As a journalist, Mehta is excited about the potential of this collective approach, both for its story value but also as a means of peer authentication.

With web connectivity and access in Egypt patchy, content gathering online is going to be supplemented by a big face-to-face campaign, and local journalists are being recruited on fellowships to work with eyewitnesses in person and host “upload parties” in Cairo and, budget allowing, beyond. These in-person meetings will also allow for important conversations around the implications – for legality, safety, privacy – of publishing content in what continues to be a volatile political situation.

Photo by Mostafa Sheshtawy

The next stage of the project will be about developing the audience experience, and Mehta admits that they’ve barely begun to think through what kind of documentary narrative/s might emerge. “We’re saying, “Where will this media take us? Where will these stories take us?” It might be some type of museum installation. It might be some type of short webisodes. It might be a narrative film. We’re pretty open right now.” Mehta and Elayat are in search of a form that can do justice to multiple viewpoints as well as being responsive to  the ongoing story. The editorial ambition is to provide an alternative to representing the revolution as driven by what Mehta calls, “hero characters”.  In an interview with the thedailynewsegypt.com, Elayat expanded on this,“We are always led to believe that history is written by one narrator. It’s somehow linear, but that is outdated now. History is not linear; we can be the first country that actively and collectively writes our history.”

thedailynewsegypt.com covered the launch, which attracted nearly 400 people, giving a feel for the response to the project by supporters in Cairo,”…the stone courtyard of the Tahrir Lounge was transformed into what felt like a political concert of sorts with combative performances by local rap group Arabian Knightz, singer Ramy Essam and MC Amin…Karim Adel (aka Rush) from Arabian Knightz said, “These types of initiatives are extremely important considering the fact that state media is continually lying. We need a media that’s going to document the truth.”

Photo - Shadi Rahimi

It’s still early days for 18Days. What you can see on the Beta site are some of the stories, known as streams, including protesters’ humorous signs  and women chanting for freedom - modest but significant documents which wouldn’t have been brought together without the 18 days content gathering effort to date. But these are just the beginning. 18 Days is an important, ambitious, multi-facetted undertaking which should offer lots of insights for storytelling in the context of social media. It also involves considerable ethical, aesthetic and logistical challenges. What constitutes informed consent in a volatile political situation? Who/what gets excluded looking at such events through the lens of social media? How robust is content stored on open platforms; how will it be accessible in the future? And what’s the relationship between documenting and documentary in such a project? 18 days is addressing these questions in practice, while playing an important role in reflecting a major story of our time. It’s going to be very interesting to see how the project develops.

Many thanks to Jigar Mehta for the interview which you call read in full here. Support the Kickstarter campaign to fund the fellowships here.

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