Bulaq (2011)

2011 § 6 Comments

On 25th January thousands of Egyptians gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, sparking what we call now the Egyptian Revolution. Only a few hundred meters far from the world-famous square, the people from popular neighbourhood Bulaq joined protesters, finding in demonstrations something more than a glimmer of hope. Through their voices, ‘Bulaq’ portrays their collective struggle against eviction and social marginalisation, whose destiny seems to be strictly intertwined with the hesitant fortunes of the Egyptian spring.

Some remarks

The idea of Bulaq materialized in 2009, when the two directors Davide Morandini and Fabio Lucchini travelled to Egypt to carry out Research on political organisation in Cairo’s informal neighbourhoods. They both came back to the city after the so-called revolution and started to develop the subject of their documentary film while working as researchers and journalists. Matteo Keffer, a young Swiss-Italian Filmmaker and friend, joined them in June to shoot their first film.

Moved by insatiable curiosity and an extreme commitment to social justice, the three make up a young team bringing together different skills and experiences, ranging from filmmaking, investigative journalism and social research. Therefore, Bulaq attempts to investigate into one of the many social movements that supported the demonstrations leading to Mubarak’s dismissal. By portraying the reality of a historical, popular neighbourhood besieged by investment companies and property speculation, Bulaq aims to shed light one of the decades-long social struggles hiding behind the fulminating 18 days of the Egyptian Revolution.

The principal photography was carried out during 8 difficult days, juggling between the strict surveillance of the security forces monitoring their movements and the people’s distrust of cameras and journalists, fomented by an unprecedented xenophobic campaign mounted by national media throughout the uprisings. This propaganda wanted, and still wants every foreign journalist or filmmaker to be looked at as a potential threat to national integrity during this very erratic, historical moment.


This documentary attempts a portrait of a contested space in central Cairo. Bulaq Abu el-Ela is a neighbourhood laying just few hundred meters from the world-famous Tahrir Square, symbol of the recent Egyptian Revolution. Since 1979, people in Bulaq live in loom of eviction: Egyptian security forces demolish houses and transfer inhabitants to one of the new towns built at the outskirt of the city, in the middle of the desert, as the old regime had planned to carry out massive plans of so-called urban development known as Cairo 2050. According to this plans, popular neighbourhoods in Downton Cairo like Bulaq would be demolished to leave room for the construction of touristic facilities and 5-star hotels.

Since last February though, the revolution gave inhabitants of Bulaq a hope that their housing rights be respected, and that the new democratic government would give up with demolitions. In fact, Bulaq is close to Tahrir Square, and the neighbourhood was directly involved in the popular uprisings that brought to Mubarak’s dismissal. Hundreds of demonstrators stormed into the neighbourhood, seeking to hide from security forces brutalizing protesters. Women from Bulaq responded offering food and opening the doors of their endangered houses to young revolutionaries. Therefore, this documentary also portraits the ways in which the fortune of this popular neighbourhood intertwine with those of the so-called revolution, telling of some of the intimate aspirations that still bring people to take the street and protest for the right to live a life worth living.

Bulaq was awarded with the first Prize at the first edition of the Festival of short reportages “Pillole di Attualità” in Rome, in September 2011. Here is a collection of snapshots and backstage pics, enjoy it!


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Country: UK | Italy | Egypt
Language: Arabic (English Subtitles)
Filming Locations: Cairo, Egypt

Aspect ratio 16:9 HD (letterbox)
Runtime: 25 min (original version)
Sound Mix: Stereo
Color: Color (HD)

A view of Bulaq, Downtown Cairo.

Our neglected oracle, the legendary Sayed Khamis

Matteo on a rooftop

An antenna stands between the Ministry of Telecommunications and that of Foreign Affairs, looming and silent characters of the documentary

Fabio chats with Sayed, one of the stars featuring in the film

Meditative Sayed walking through the alleys of Bulaq

Final destination: a hostile environment

The Mulid of Hussein

2011 § Leave a comment


the whirl around


Celebrating May-Day with Cairo’s (other) workers

2011 § Leave a comment

The first May day in post-revolutionary Egypt saw hundreds of thousands of people gather in Tahrir Square. The crowd asked for the new government to guarantee reforms that would provide workers with basic rights.

But Magdir, a 45 years-old worker for a Cairo construction company, did not rally in Tahrir. He spent his Mayday working with his colleagues, re-painting the facade of a building only few blocks away from the world-famous Square where demonstrators had gathered.

“There is nothing to do there,” Magdir told Bikya Masr while holding a blue rope in his right hand spattered with yellow paint. Magdir raises his head, peering at the paint basket hanging at the opposite end of the rope. There, his workmates Ahmed and Abdallah sink their rollers and attentively paint the facade of a nineteenth century downtown building.

Ahmed and Abdallah stand on the same wooden beam, leaned on by two motorbike tires, each of them hanging from a rope they previously fixed on the top of the building. The two swing together at roughly 20 meters from the floor, giving a brush to the facade every time their fluctuation takes them close enough to the building.

“Thank God we work six days a week,” continued Magdir, “and on Friday I stay at home, play Playstation or football with friends.”

Magdir used to be a migrant worker. He worked as a cook in Jordan, as a waiter in Syria and as a builder in Saudi Arabia. When he found wife in Egypt and planned to settle down, this job was the best he managed to get.

However, he regards this as a lucky catch somehow, as his and his colleagues’ daily salary range between LE60-80 daily ($10-15), exceeding the monthly LE400 ($68) set by Egypt’s current legislation as minimum wage.

This is another reason why they might not have joined Tahrir’s protesters. There, demonstrators called for the government to immediately raise minimum wages up to LE1,200 ($200).

Until October 2010, minimum wage in Egypt was set at LE35 monthly ($6). It was then raised just over the World Bank’s Moderate Poverty Threshold ($2 daily) following unprecedented protests.

But many look on with nostalgia at the earlier stand, as employees would openly negotiate salaries with their own employer. As the minimum wage was set at a higher rate, many ended up with earnings lower then they would expect before the reform.

Instead, Magdir’s concerns depend on another topic. “His father died two years ago,” says him pointing at his young apprentice Amr, “he fell from the beam. Gone.” Lacking alternatives, Amr took his father’s place in the company and is now learning from his colleagues how to swing on the beam.

“It takes an iron heart to get up there,” intervenes Mohammed, one of the company’s veteran. Mohammed has been going up on the beam for more than thirty years. He now enjoys the petty tasks reserved to an experienced assistant like him.

He does not know how and when, but Magdir considers a trade union the only way out from their unlucky position.

He and his colleagues think many steps forward have been done towards the creation of a safer working environment in the last years. Nonetheless, as a consequence of the complete lack of public subsidies and the dangerous working conditions, their job is often not worth doing.

Independent trade unions outside the management of state-led Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF) were formally banned under former President Hosni Mubarak. After the February 11 collapse of the regime, the ETUF’s 54 year-long monopoly was interrupted by the creation of a range of new associations, covering all sorts of categories including those previously discriminated by the ETUF like farmers and fishermen.

Lack of coordination and know-how are not the only obstacles between workers like Magdir and trade unions.

The Cairo Land Center for Human Rights (LCHR) recently warned of an ongoing genocide in the Egyptian village of Musa, as remnants of the former regime deprived inhabitants of current water and food supplies, as they discovered farmers were planning to institute a trade union to cover their interests.
As the battle rages on on Tahrir’s international stage, and newly-formed trade unions endorse interests of industrial workers (see those in Shebeen al-Kom or Mahalla), those like Magdir have a much longer and tougher battle ahead of them.

Abdallah and Ahmed slowly reach the base of the building and finally hop off the beam. Abdallah says he does not fear his job, but hopes he will soon have enough money to give it up. He wants to buy a Toyota and work as a microbus driver.

this was from Bikya Masr, photos by David Chierchini © 2011-2012

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