There’s nothing fancy about Mavis!, but there doesn’t need to be.
Today was documentary day for me at the Athena Film Festival. I opened the day with The Trials of Spring, directed by Gini Reticker, a powerful film that looks at the struggle for freedom in Egypt through the eyes of three courageous women. The central character is Hend Nafea, a young Muslim woman who traveled from her village to join the protests in Tahrir Square much against the wishes of her conservative family. Her experiences speak to the difficulty not only of achieving real democratic reform but also of the particular burdens placed on women in Egypt, no matter which group is in power.
Many women took part in the demonstrations, but some found that they were treated unspeakably by both the male protestors and by the police. Nafea serves as the voice for many as she describes being groped by other protestors, who took advantage of the crowds to do what they wanted, and then being humiliated, molested, and tortured by the police, including being subject to a ridiculous “virginity test” thats primary purpose was to abuse the women subjected to it. She, along with a number of protestors, were then tried for a ridiculously trumped-up list of offenses and face the possibility of long prison sentences due to their defiance of the government.
When Mariam Kirollos, a Christian, was asked what she wanted most from the revolution, she said an end to sexual harassment. That may sound trivial if you are male or if you’ve never been to Cairo, but the reality is that women’s autonomy and ability to move about freely are severely compromised by almost constant sexual harassment that continues in large part because the harassers know they will get away with it. Sometimes this mistreatment goes beyond verbal abuse to physical molestation and rape—The Trials of Spring includes chilling video footage of a woman being dragged off screaming by a group of men—and it is telling that even with video evidence of this incident clearly showing the men’s faces, they were not prosecuted for their crimes.
Khadiga Hennawi, an older Muslim woman who offered shelter to many female protestors, says she turned her home into a second Tahrir Square. She also notes that she stopped wearing the veil because of her treatment at the hands of the ostensibly Muslim police and government. Another protestor puts it even more clearly—the men who are beating and raping defenseless women claim to a higher morality based on Islam, and clearly don’t see the contradiction between their religion and their behavior.
The power of Trials of Spring comes not only from the courage of the women interviewed but also by a great selection of video and other archival materials. While the three central characters all display an indomitable spirit, the progression of the story over several years and several regime changes does not lend itself to optimism—as one interview subject notes, for all the protests and suffering, Egyptians are less free today than they were in 2011.
I closed the day with Mavis!, Jessica Edwards’ portrait of Mavis Staples. It’s an example of how a great documentary can be made with the most basic of materials—in this case, a lot of footage of Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers performing, fleshed out with interviews with Mavis and with other notables like Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Marty Stuart, and Jeff Tweedy.
The Staples Singers were one of the greatest gospel groups of all time, but their range was much broader than just gospel: they were the first non-folk group to record Bob Dylan songs, and they also recorded many mainstream hits including the sexually suggestive “Do It Again” (which Pops Staples, Mavis’ father and the group leader, at first, refused to sing). The Staples Singers were also among the first gospel groups to record political material and were the favorite band of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (their hit, “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” refers to the abuse suffered by the students who integrated the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas).
There’s nothing fancy about Mavis!, but there doesn’t need to be—the music itself, and the infectious and upbeat spirit of Mavis Staples, still touring at age 86, more than carry the film. | Sarah Boslaugh