‘Nefertiti’s Daughters’ to premiere at Aspen Shortsfest
If You Go …
What: ‘Nefertiti’s Daughters’ at Aspen Shortsfest
When: Today, 5:30 p.m. program; also Saturday, April 11, 7:30 p.m. in Carbondale
Where: Wheeler Opera House
Cost: $15/general admission; $12/Aspen Film members
Tickets: Wheeler box office; www.aspenshowtix.com
More info: www.aspenfilm.org
Queen Nefertiti dons a tear-gas mask on the streets of Cairo in “Nefertiti’s Daughters.”
The 40-minute documentary, premiering Thursday at Aspen Shortsfest, depicts the emergence of Egyptian women street artists since the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square. Under the constant threat of violence and arrest, a group of women artists have taken to the streets there, using Nefertiti and Pharonic imagery as a rallying cry for social change, along with stark images that spread an anti-authoritarian message. A blue bra, for example, stenciled on urban walls, represents a woman who was assaulted on camera by Egyptian military forces, stripped out of her abaya to her underwear, and stomped.
Three stories intersect in this compelling short film from director Mark Nickolas: the emergence of Egyptian street art, the oppression of women in the country, and the revolution of that toppled President Hosni Mubarak but didn’t stop government brutality against Egyptians.
“These are real life and death issues,” Nickolas said in a recent phone interview. “These women go into the streets not knowing the outcome. They could be raped in the streets for doing their art. And once the assault is over, they may be arrested for doing their art.”
As Nickolas began filming the documentary, he envisioned it as an ensemble portrait of the women artist-activists who have emerged in Egypt. But, as he learned more about artist Bahia Shehab, she emerged as the film’s main character. Nickolas found Bahia Shehab through a TED Talk she gave in 2012, titled “A Thousand Times No,” about her project using the Arabic script for “No” as protest art.
Last year, Shehab was named to the BBC’s “100 Women” list for the second time, in recognition of her leadership through art in Egypt. She is in Aspen for Thursday’s premiere and is expected to take part in a panel discussion following the screening.
Before the Arab Spring, there was not an established tradition of street art in Egypt. So the artists who took to the streets in protest, like Shehab, Mahia Shihadeh and Salma Samy, were formally trained painters, art historians and graphic designers. Their astounding, stark and powerful work, as a result, has a rare clarity.
“They came into the streets with a level of thoughtfulness about how they communicate,” Nickolas said. “They knew exactly how to impart strong meaning in simple images.”
The 40-minute short is Nickolas’s debut as a director, or, as he puts it, “the first film I’ve made that wasn’t for a grade.”
His filmmaking career is something of a second act for Nickolas, who worked in national politics for about 15 years – serving in the press shop for Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential bid, and then managing campaigns for gubernatorial and congressional Democratic candidates. He then moved into media, blogging about Kentucky politics as early as 2005 and working as a columnist for Louisville’s alt-weekly.
At age 44, he turned his attention to filmmaking and enrolled in the film program at the New School in New York City.
“I thought, ‘How else can someone who cares about issues do work that helps influence the public?’” he recalled. “And documentary filmmaking, in its finest form, can do so much. They have the ability to communicate much more effectively.”
His talent behind the camera quickly drew attention. A 6-minute student film he made on the history of the Wall Street “Charging Bull” statue made it into festivals and was the subject of features on CNBC and NPR.
Nickolas used that momentum to make “Nefertiti’s Daughters,” raising $20,000 through a Kickstarter campaign and heading to Cairo to film last April.
Of course, the Egyptian revolution is a work-in-progress, and it’s clear from the film that its story is ongoing. But Nickolas opted not to continue following it, or to pursue a feature length documentary, instead capturing a “snapshot of a short period of time.” For now, Nickolas said, he isn’t concerned about getting distribution or selling “Nefertiti’s Daughters” to a broadcaster. He’s submitted it to 40-some film festivals and simply wants this story of Egypt’s women street artists to be heard.
“I don’t look at the film as a commercial endeavor,” he said. “I look at it as an important story that needed to be told.”
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