Ronnie Close is a writer, filmmaker, and assistant professor of visual media at the American University in Cairo. His work includes the documentary More Out of Curiosity, a project that involved shooting and gathering video and other archival materials over a three-year period with the Ultras groups in Cairo, 2012–2015.
His book Cairo’s Ultras: Resistance and Revolution in Egypt’s Football Culture, just published by AUC Press, explores how football communities offer ways of belonging and instill meaning in everyday life.
The Ultras Al-Ahly and the Ultras White Knights fans, belonging to the two main teams, Al-Ahly F.C. and Zamalek F.C respectively, became embroiled in the street protests that brought down the Mubarak regime in the 2011 Egyptian uprising.
In the violent turmoil since, the Ultras have been locked in a bitter conflict with the Egyptian state. Tracing these social movements to explore their role in the uprising and the political dimension of soccer in Egypt, Close provides a vivid, intimate sense of the Ultras’ unique subculture.
What initially sparked your interest in Cairo’s Ultras, this particular group of Egyptian football fans, and how did this evolve into writing a book about them?
RC: This subject was at first personally curious to me, as I have been a football fan since childhood. When I visited Cairo in 2011 I heard of the Ultras and I was surprised to encounter Egyptian football culture. I learnt about the Al-Ahly and Zamelak clubs and was struck by the rich heritage of and role of football in Egypt. It felt like common ground and something shared despite obvious cultural differences. Football has a universal appeal that has always interested me although I never thought I would work on football for my research. I moved to AUC in January 2012 to take up my academic post in the university and within a few weeks of arriving the Port Said incident happened. The mood was suddenly transformed an even though in 2011 there were many other tragedies, Port Said was my introduction to that type of experience. It felt like something significant had occurred and I began to film the street protests. I developed this into a film project, got some funding from Screen Ireland, and for the next year documented the period intensely. The film, More out of Curiosity, has been shown widely in exhibitions, film festivals, and university research centers. However, by 2016 I started to consider a book iteration based on my engagement through making the film. I actually began by writing an article for an academic journal but soon realized there was a lot of material to cover which opened up intriguing critical issues within this social history. In that sense the shift from film to book research was a natural progression.
How would you describe Cairo’s Ultras and where and how do they fit into Egypt’s social and political landscape?
RC: As I began to engage with the football communities in Cairo I soon realized that they had offered a powerful form of expression of Egyptian youth culture. The Ultras were non-sectarian, non-class-based, apolitical, and even had female members. This seemed to be a unique form of social mixing and offered a release for many ordinary working class Egyptians. This culture is in keeping with the appeal of other Ultra movements in other countries and the Egyptian version became modified to suit local social norms.
In a past interview, you said “what drew me to the group was a fascination with the aesthetic displays and their social organization.” Can you elaborate on that statement?
RC: The cultural practices of the Ultras involve group displays called Tifos that are highly choreographed collective actions where banners, flares, and fireworks create an intense experience in the football stadium. Ultras groups are in competition with these Tifos and the two often try to outdo each other. What interests me is how such creative activities, which take a lot of planning, preparation, and organization, can form a community and powerful group experience. These actions are in contrast to the football establishment and media industry, who often oppress this type of behavior and prefer football fans to be more passive. It seems to me that this a form of resistance to larger coercive forces that increasingly commodify daily life. Ultras movements hold a global appeal to something more human and this is what makes them so popular across cultures. It is this transformation of sport fandom that interests me and makes Cairo’s Ultras such a fascinating research area.
How easy was it for you to gain access to the groups for research and do you feel that the book objectively reflects the football culture of the Ultras?
RC: The Ultras in Cairo were straightforward to deal with and although cautious they were very supportive of my film when I first met with them. The book research did not involve much additional research on the Ultras, as the experience of producing the film was sufficient. Moreover, the writing process is a very different form of work and I was mostly involved in theoretical research, such as how everyday aesthetics can become political. I used the Ultras as a lens through which to explore the concept of Dissensus by the French philosopher Jacques Ranciere. Simply, this means challenging the status quo, what is considered normal in a time or place, and I would suggest the Ultras in Egypt performed their own equality. This is one of the main theories in the book as it expands outwards from Egypt to look at Brazilian football amongst other marginalized communities.
In what ways would you say that Cairo’s Ultras are unique in terms of a group of football fans?
RC: I think the book will show that the history and culture of Cairo’s Ultras are distinctive. They were initially modeled on Italian football fan culture and Ultras groups are now a global phenomenon. However, the Egyptian Ultras intersected with the 25th January uprising and the consequences of this time make their history remarkable. Although many football fan groups have had similar histories and political struggles, few can match the mercurial fate of Cairo’s Ultras over 11 years. I also tried to write a book that is more expansive than a straightforward history of Ultras, one that invites us to think about the role of the media and how sport culture can embody emancipatory politics.
His documentary film
Ronnie Close’s documentary film More Out of Curiosity (26 min), about Cairo’ s Ultras, will be screened at MESA’s 2019 FilmFest on Friday, November 15, at 4:20pm.
Ronnie Close on social media