Mohamed Fahmy is a man in a constant state of agitation. He's either brooding or on the move, finding it hard to be serene. You too would be in such a state if you had spent more than 400 days in an Egyptian prison and had your chance of freedom snatched away more than once.
It is two years now since Fahmy, an Egyptian-born Canadian journalist, was released and returned to Canada. Many of those who recall the case and are not connected to journalism will remember the international attention he received, thanks largely to his lawyer, Amal Clooney.
Mohamed Fahmy: Half Free (Sunday, CBC, 9 p.m. on CBC Docs POV) is filmmaker David Paperny's intimate profile of Fahmy, telling the story of how he landed in jail and what transpired before he was released. It is an outlandish, compelling tale, mainly because it is a series of circles within circles.
Fahmy's troubles began in December, 2013, when he was working as the acting Cairo bureau chief for Qatar-based satellite news broadcaster Al Jazeera English. He'd been a freelance producer with the BBC and CNN and covered the Iraq War. During the Arab Spring, he was working seven days a week for CNN. Tumultuous times and war zones were his specialty. What he wanted, though, was a full-time job. As he says, he met a wonderful woman – she is now his wife, Marwa – and wanted to get married. CNN wasn't able to give him a permanent position, so he took the Al Jazeera job.
It was a mistake. Egypt was coming to loathe Qatar and Al Jazeera. The channel was operating in makeshift offices and studios in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, and there was an air of chaos in the office. Three months after he was hired, the authorities stormed into the office and arrested Fahmy and colleagues Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, charging them with a bizarre array of offences, including supporting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and fabricating footage to undermine Egypt's national security.
The three were designated as terrorists and taken to what is called the Scorpion Prison. "It's a cemetery," Fahmy says now. "Very few people come out of that place." When the trio finally appeared in court, they were caged to emphasize that they were considered a terrorist threat. The theatre of it, seen today, is bizarre. Fahmy was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison.
What unfolded in the following months was equally bizarre. The Harper government made some noises about acting on Fahmy's behalf. But it is clear, even now, there was a deep reluctance. The very mention of the word "terrorism," no matter how trumped up the charges, seemed to make Stephen Harper and his government wary. You get the sense this guy Fahmy wasn't the sort of person who interested them much.
In prison, Fahmy fumed and agitated for action. He was ill and needed treatment for a shoulder injury he had suffered when he was thrown in prison. His two colleagues seemed to handle their incarceration better. Fahmy was just hurting and angry.
The picture we get is that of a blunt, well-organized journalist. We get the story of how he saved Dina Amer, an award-winning journalist with CNN, The New York Times and PBS. In 2011, when Amer and Fahmy were separately covering a riot outside the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the crowd, almost all men, turned on Amer, grabbing and pushing her. Fahmy lunged into the crowd and lay on top of Amer to protect her, eventually getting her out of there. In the documentary Amer says, simply, that he saved her life.
As the trials, retrials and machinations got even more complicated, it was Amer who was able, through a friend, to get Clooney involved in representing Fahmy. That was the turning point, Fahmy admits. Clooney's fame and the attention she brought embarrassed Egypt as the circus-like atmosphere drew media attention from around the world.
At the heart of the story is a man trapped in circles of hell, inside a circumstance not of his own making. Freedom is within his grasp and then disappears because of the actions of others. (Canada's then-minister of foreign affairs, John Baird, made a grave error in the Fahmy case.) Fahmy's frustration mounted and, today, living in Vancouver, it still seethes. That's why he's "half-free." His energy now is directed at helping the families of the wrongfully imprisoned and ceaselessly talking about the number of journalists who are in jail around the world for doing their jobs.
It's a strange, unsettling story. There but for the vagaries of luck go we all. And how would we, the viewers, react in such circumstances? That's the troubling question the viewer takes away.