THE SQUARE, a riveting documentary nominated for an Oscar this year, actually takes the audience into the turbulent, vibrant center of the Egyptian Revolution. THE SQUARE, directed by Jehane Noujaim, is an astonishing document of Egypt’s uprising, and a remarkable exercise in the power of witness.
The film begins in 2011 with the very first protests in the streets of Cairo and in Tahrir Square, and focuses on three unlikely comrades in arms: Khalid Abdalla is an Egyptian movie star, famous both in the US and abroad (he starred in such films as The Kite Runner), who gave up his busy actor’s life in London to join in the Revolution, becoming its unofficial spokesperson in the process; Ahmed Hassan -a smiling, self-deprecating young man- filled with both committed enthusiasm and undisguised joy at being a part of something much larger than himself; and Magdy Ashour , who is both conflicted by and compelled by the Revolution: A man who is “with” the Muslim Brotherhood, only to flip sides in 2011 and siding with those in Tahrir Square. His journey, as he mustmake decisions based on both his faith and the financial care of his family, only highlight the extraordinary complexities which currently plague so muchofMiddle Eastern politics today.
These truly gripping portraits, along with those of fellow activists Ragia, a human rights lawyer, Ramy Essam, who becomes a popular folksinger throughout the course of the film, and is also badly arrested and brutally beaten during the course of the film; and Aida, a young woman with a sharply keen sense of which way the political is blowing, searingly round out what is truly an unprecedented look into what makes a country decide they have simply had enough. Raw, funny and often edge-of-your seat intense and immediate, The Square is a spectacular, must-see document. We are right in the fray with the Egyptian protestors, through the ousting of both Mubarak and Morsi –Egyptian men and women of all ages, religious and social differences- putting it all aside in the struggle for freedom and a democratic state. We are seeing not political talking heads nor extreme Muslim Brotherhood members-but a courageous group, which by the end of the film has amassed into literally millions, of brave activists.
At the stormy center of the film and the Revolution itself were Noujaim and her tiny crew, risking their lives and often the film’s footage itself, (they slept right alongside their subjects right in Tahrir Square, tear gas and all). Charming and confident, born in Cairo and Harvard-educated,Noujaim has already won the TED Prize (in 2006) and directed such documentaries Control Room and Startup.com.I had the great pleasure of sitting down to speak with her a week before the Oscars:
FM: I just have to ask you: How did you all (your crew) keep yourselves safe during these often-violent protests at Tahrir Square? (both armies and police became considerably more agressive as regimes changed and the demonstrations continued). You are so brave.
Director Jehane Noujaim: Oh, I don’t think I’m brave. I mean, I may make films about heroes, but, honestly, we learned so much from them. It’s kind of like when you’re standing with people that are putting everything that they have on the line, to fight for what they believe in-they could be arrested, and they could be facing years in prison, you just, I don’t know…You just learn a great deal from them, and there’s a fearlessness that develops. You know, you’re identifying , at least, I do-I end up identifying with and to live the life of- the people I’m filming. And that’s’ why I get so close to them. We were all sleeping in the Square, with the tear gas (being thrown), taking the same kinds of risks. Although, of course, not as much, as I have an American passport, I have people that…If I’m imprisoned, I know that there’s going to be articles written about me, which, in a way, puts me in a much safer situation. I mean, you would think so, anyway. I do have a friend, an Al-Jazeera journalist, who has been in prison for two months now.
FM: So you felt some level of safety?
Director Jehane Noujaim: I would say there’s never 100% safety: For yourself, for your crew, for your characters, for your footage…But you can take precautions, and the precautions that I took were, the minute that I knew I had filmed something incredible, I’d immediately take out the video card, go back to the office, and download it. And we’d continue copying drives, and make sure that the drives were in different places, and then any time someone would leave the country, we would send the drives out.So, there was this kind of process. In terms of our personal safety, everyone on the team has at one time been tear gassed, been shot at, jailed…So, there was no such thing as hiring anyone to come onto this project. We all met in the Square. The film came out of The Square. But that’s also the only way that it could have happened, because, as I said, there’s no way I would have asked that of anyone, or taken on that kind of responsibility.(My crew) also felt that they were filming something that is not only a ‘film.’ We were filming this moment in history. People were filming as witnesses, and much of the footage has been used now at news stations, when newscasters were not there on the front lines. Or, it has been used in a court case, as well. This is where the camera really became the weapon…
FM: I love Ahmed’s line, “If you have a camera, you can have a revolution.”
Jehane Noujaim: A quarter of the film is his! A quarter of the film is his footage. That section where you really feel like you are about to be shot by the police or the army? All his.
FM: What have some of the international reactions been like to hear?
Jehane Noujaim: What has been amazing to see since releasing this online, if you go to #TheSquare (on Twitter), you see people requiting some of the lines, and translating them into many languages. And it’s amazing, because it’s young people seeing even lines in the film that didn’t even stick out for me; but when I see all of this reposting, people are seeing so much of this film in themselves, and their own struggles, which is really exciting to see. Ahmed’s line, “We’re not looking for a leader, as much as we’re looking for a conscious?” That line has been translated into Chinese, Portugese, Spanish, Ukranian…We had a screening of The Square in the Ukraine two weeks ago.
FM: You’re kidding?! Wow.
Jehane Noujaim: No, no, no, I’m serious! The protestors organized it, translated the film…Here, I’ll show you pictures.(She handily takes out her phone.) It was amazing. A friend of ours who we were working with-Stuart- he has these traveling, big blow-up screens, he showed the film, and he had to escape afterward! The authorities said, (in a mock rough voice) ‘There is a forbidden movie being shown, and there is an American Spy here showing it.” So, Stuart had to leave, but the protestors continued to show it, and they had Skype sessions with Ahmed! So, it was amazing…Now, the protestors in Venezuela want to do the same thing. There’s this interconnectedness that is happening in the world right now…
FM: You spoke on Piers Morgan last night about ‘bearing witness….’ How is Ahmed doing now?
Jehane Noujaim: He’s good! He is such a strong soul. I had called him because I was sad about a friend of mine being in jail, and he totally cheered me up! The youth have so much hope there. He said: ‘You know, you just don’t understand! There are people that are showing this film in coffee shops downtown, there are Facebook pages where a thousand people have signed up different events!” He said, Jehane, it’s like a football game… That people are talking about issues that have been silenced on the local news there…And so, to be able to see it, and talk about it, is so incredible. And he goes, ‘Send me more pictures of the screening in Mexico on the Plaza!” and “Send me more photos of the Ukraine,” and on and on, because that’s what motivates him, to know that regardless of the ups and downs that he’s going through in Egypt, that this is a global struggle-people trying to change their relationship with the government. And that it’s not just a lonely struggle.
Her thoughts on the American perspective of this struggle in Egypt:
Jehane Noujaim: We come from a country (The U.S.)which just has this legacy of people power, and marches being able to change things, mad how depressing it must have been- because it wasn’t covered anywhere. Imagine how hard it must have been- in the midst of all of that. Now, everything is changing…We have social media, and (the authorities) can no longer act with impunity. It is a different world now.
Stream The Square right now on Netflix this week before the Oscars, where Jehane Noujaim may very well pick up that little gold trophy for Best Documentary Feature.