The ability of one person to tell another’s story, and to advocate on his or her behalf by both listening and speaking out, should not be underestimated.  That power is most vital in places of extreme upheaval.  Egypt, in this case.

Words of Witness, the new documentary showing at the Los Angeles Film Festival, journeys with young journalist Heba Afify as she reports in the aftermath of the Mubarak regime.  After only three months working as a reporter, Heba is repeatedly thrust into chaotic and dangerous situations.   Everywhere she goes, she finds people clamoring to be listened to.

Heba finds herself acting as mediator and peacemaker as sometimes-conflicting viewpoints fight for her ear.  The people’s true voices are often drowned out by the Egyptian army’s continual assertion that it is on the side of the people and not being controlled by the ousted autocrat behind closed doors.

Heba implants herself in tumultuous situations, including a storming of state security offices where political prisoners are believed to be held.  Even after the overthrow of Mubarak, protesters were seized and tortured.  Many of them have yet to be found.

Heba’s home life also is in turmoil as her parents confront her about her work….  Her mother reminds her, “I know you are a journalist, but you’re still a girl!”  You can feel this home-based stress when, while driving home, Heba is stuck in traffic and receives multiple concerned calls from her parents warning her of protests and a closed bridge.

The documentary reminds us of the transcendent power of words, including those blasted out on social media.  Interestingly, social media, often credited with helping the Egyptian revolution boil over, even provides a semblance of reconciliation between mother and daughter vis-à-vis their disagreement about Heba’s profession.

The filmmakers’ close following of Heba’s journeys provides more than an extra thump of a heartbeat.  My heart starts pounding as I think about the film.  It’s frightening stuff, and viewers never forget that Heba is a rather young woman in the midst of the chaos.  Her vulnerability and her tenacity make the film very compelling.  And while she may be young and relatively inexperienced, Heba is a source of strength for the Egyptian people she listens to.

Words of Witness directed by IDA Humanitas Award-winner Mai Iskander and plays Sunday, June 17 and Wednesday, June 20 at the L.A. Film Festival.


–Ken Choy

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