Director Gini Reticker on ‘The Trials of Spring’

Emmy-winning and Oscar nominated filmmaker Gini Reticker was one of the original directors of the 2011series, “Women, War & Peace” and returns in this second series with “The Trials of Spring” (Monday, March 25 at 10:00 p.m.).  This documentary premiered in 2015 at 90 minutes and follows three Egyptian women who fought for justice during Egypt’s Arab Spring in 2011: the Muslim Hend Nafea, the Christian Mariam Kirollos and the surrogate mother for the female protesters, Khadiga Hennawi. For the PBS “Women, War & Peace II,” the documentary was cut down to one-hour.

Reticker along with Abigail E. Disney and Pamela Hogan, created the original series which won a the Overseas Press Club’s Edward R. Murrow Award for best TV documentary on international affairs and a Gracie Award for outstanding series. “The War We Are Living won the Overseas Press Club’s Award for best reporting in any medium on Latin America, “Pray the Devil Back to Hell won the Gracie Award for outstanding producer, and “I Came to Testify was been honored with the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel award. The original series was a co-production of THIRTEEN and Fork Films in association with WNET and ITVS and this new series, “Women, War & Peace II,” is executive produced by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker for Fork Films and Stephen Segaller for THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET.

Reticker responded to questions via email for an article in RogerEbert.com.

Q: How did you get interested in this topic?

A: In the early days of the Arab Spring, I instinctively wanted to find out more about what was happening with women. I knew that stories about women as change makers are commonly underreported. I did a scout and met women from across the region. And my instinct was right. In Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, there were incredible untold stories about the key role that women played in motivating uprisings that toppled dictators.  When I met Hend Nafea in Egypt, I was completely taken with her story as it seemed to be a microcosm of  the events shaping the country.

Q: The original release in 2016 was 90 minutes. What had to be cut out for this TV version?

A: Cutting it down for the TV version was incredibly difficult because the film covers three dynamic years during which three regime changes happened. I knew that it was critical to be clear on how the unfolding historical events were completely impacting what was happening to Hend. In the end, I did have to lose some of details of her  back story. Which was hard, because she was emblematic of so many young people. Hend was a college student who had been brought up in a village in a very conservative family. She had a brother who she was very close to and helped raise. Her entire family were all supporters of the military regime. They completely expected Hend to have a traditional life where she married someone of their choosing and was content with solely being a wife and mother. None of them had any idea at first that Hend was participating in demonstrations to topple the regime. When they found out after she was arrested and tortured, they were ashamed of her and tried to break her will. All of this contributed to her becoming the human rights activist that she is today, with a crystal clear notion that as a person, she too is entitled to her beliefs, to do meaningful work, to hold those who tortured her responsible and to choose who she would want to marry.

Q: What is the main theme or ideas that you’d like an American audience to take away from this film?

A: I think that to me the most important thing I’d like audiences to take away is how women are critical to ensuring the success of meaningful change.The Trials of Spring is a cautionary tale for what happens when women’s rights are not fully embraced in the fight for social justice. In Egypt there was incredible unity in the early days of Tahrir Square as millions of people gathered and protested the decades long rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.  Everybody I met talked about this incredible unity they felt in the Square, almost as if they were one organism.

Mubarak fell on February 11th and only weeks later on March 9, on International Women’s Day, women went to Tahrir Square to demonstrate for their rights, saying a now is the time to recognize women’s rights as human rights.  And suddenly men turned on them. Some of the men were Islamists, but some were also fellow demonstrators. They drove the women demonstrators out of the square. And that was a critical point when the military choose to divide and conquer the protestors. The army swept in and arrested scores of people. Unmarried women who were arrested were forced to undergo virginity tests and were labeled as prostitutes.  Adbel Fattah el-Sisi, who was then a general in the military, claimed that the army had to do this to avoid potential charges of rape. Women protestors claimed that this was a tactic used to intimidate them from protesting and also to malign and disgrace women who did. Their participation became a wedge issue used to tarnish the entire social movement for change.

Q: What is the situation today in Egypt?

A: The situation today is that the military is back in power as never before. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or “Sisi”, once the commander of the Egyptian the military, who ordered the virginity tests, is now the president of Egypt. Earlier this month, he expanded his grip on power, allowing him to remain in office until 2034.  Human rights groups claim that there are now 60,000 political prisoners who have been imprisoned since he came to power. Reports of the massively popular uprising that took place during the Arab Spring have been completely repressed, erased from the history books.

Q: How did being a female director impact your work? Did it help or hinder?

A: Because I was focusing on women characters, it was a distinct advantage to be a woman. Two of the three main characters are young women and I could connect to the stories they told. It reminded me a lot of being raised in a very Catholic family and my early days in the women’s movement. I have spent a lot of time in my life thinking about how the personal is political, which was a common theme among women I met in Egypt.  I felt a keen affinity for them.

Q: What does your film say about the importance of women in war and peace?

Actually, the film demonstrates the danger of failing to fully encompass women in any fight for social justice.  I remember being with Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee on March 9, 2011 when we heard reports of the attack on women’s rights demonstrators in Cairo. She said then that Egyptian Arab Spring was doomed to failure unless it embraced what the protestors were fighting for. She was right. Women are half the population and by definition, you can’t have a successful movement that doesn’t include them as equal partners.

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