‘We Met at the Square’: A Conversation with Film Director Jehane Noujaim and Producer Karim Amer about Their Oscar Nominated Doc ‘The Square’
On February 11, 2011, the world watched in anticipation the aerial views of tiny bobbing heads and flags snapping in the wind; Egypt was poised to add a very important chapter to its beleaguered political history. In a little under 20 days, the country’s people willed the end of a regime that had ruled under emergency law for 30 years. All eyes were fixed on Tahrir Square — a small patch of land in Cairo that had begun to take on a mythical quality. Whoever controlled the Square had the power. And for that singular moment, the people of Egypt united, despite differences in religion, class or status, flocking to the Square to demand the ousting of president Hosni Mubarak. The people were one; the people had the Square; the people had the power.
It was in Tahrir Square during those first 18 days of the revolution that film director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer met each other and those who would become the cast and crew of their Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square. As we watch the regime fall in the film, we also witness the aspirations for post-Mubarak Egypt become fragmented among differing viewpoints. Noujaim allows her six main characters, all from different walks of Egyptian life, to take us through the various perspectives that encompass the revolution for the two-and-a-half years after the deposition of Mubarak, as they take to Tahrir Square in protest time and time again. The film’s power is in its message that the people have the power to hold their governments accountable and change their situation. Noujaim recently had to add on to the film when she realized her subjects were back in the streets this past summer, calling for the democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi to step down due to his abuse of office.
The Square is shot in the style of cinéma vérité, which offers a personal insight into the various voices of the revolution by exclusively following the film’s main characters, some of whom provide their perspectives not only in front of the camera, but also behind it, filming the front lines themselves. Of the main characters, we spend the most time with Ahmed, an easy-smiling, disenfranchised 20-something, whom we watch grow up during the course of the filming, embodying the passion of the youth of the revolution; Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose conscience as an individual thinker conflicts with his party’s decisions; and Khalid Abdalla, the British-Egyptian actor and filmmaker (The Kite Runner), who comes from a line of outspoken activists exiled from the country.
The film transitions through milestones during those years using beautifully composed shots of artist Ammar Abo Bakr painting over a mural to depict the passage of time. As Ahmed narrates what has happened in the ensuing months, we watch Abo Bakr’s paint-stained hands incorporate the slogans and emblems of a particular moment in the revolution on the same wall, such as the graffiti stencil effigies of the former rulers stricken through with red.
Along with the Oscar nod, the film has won Noujaim and company awards at Sundance, the Toronto Film Festival, and the Berlin International Film Festival, along with many other nominations. But the real triumph is the universality of its message. It rings true not just in Egypt and the Arab world, but also in countries around the world where protestors are fighting for their voices to be heard. Last week in Kiev, Ukrainians held a screening of The Square in the wake of their protests.
The film was released on Netflix on January 17th, and was made available for streaming in Egypt on Febuary 22nd. It has yet to be officially released for public consumption in cinemas in Egypt because of the bureaucratic slog of the country’s censorship committee.
In between travel and screenings, just a week before the Academy Awards, Noujaim (Control Room, Rafea: Solar Mama) and Amer (Rafea: Solar Mama) found time to share with GALO their thoughts on the film’s success, the collaborative process between the cast and crew, and the role of social media in the film.
GALO: Your film shows how Tahrir Square brought all of these different people together, and through their efforts there, solidified for themselves the right to protest. Can you talk about the use of this space in the context of its role in bringing about change, and its importance symbolically — especially to those forces who still try to prevent protestors from seeking out the Square today?
Jehane Noujaim: Karim and I both grew up in Egypt where people were afraid to give their opinions about politics or what they really felt about what was going on because of fear of repercussion, and just to see people speaking so openly, in such numbers, in a public space — men and women and different classes and religious and secular, dreaming about having a hand in their future for the very first time — was exciting. We come from the land of the pharaohs, where we’ve always had a strongman who ruled us — and just to see people recognizing that there were other people who felt just like them was exciting.
And what we were fighting for were very basic rights, very basic human rights and social justice in Egypt. But what was also exciting about that Square was that, as we were making the film, there were squares that were erupting around the world, not only in Egypt, but also in Turkey, in Greece, and in the U.S. with the Occupy movement. Even though the particulars of all these places were very different, the spirit of it remains the same, which was: “We can be together and show our power as young people, and our desire to peacefully protest and to change our relationship with our government.” I felt like this was an interesting film to make because this idea of using a public space as a tool for political change was really hitting on the zeitgeist of our times.
GALO: Some of the most compelling moments in the film occur when the different characters sit down and try to understand each other’s opinions — Magdy, Ahmed, Khalid, for example. I remember Ahmed telling Magdy that he wants to stand with him because the revolution was for a principal, not for spilling blood, despite his own differing political views. Do you know how they have reacted in the midst of the ongoing violence, especially in regards to what has happened to the Muslim Brotherhood and their supporters — do they see it as a setback for those who want their voices to be heard?
JN: Every single one of the characters that is in the film is heartbroken at the violence that has happened in Egypt, regardless of what their political views are, because it’s an attack on our humanity. And that’s the first thing that goes when the government spreads fear and the media plays into this whole atmosphere of fear and that “we’re under attack.” We know this from being in post September 11 in the U.S. The first thing that goes is the other’s humanity. You find the enemy and you dehumanize them, and that’s why we so easily went to attacking Iraq and Afghanistan. And the fear here [in Egypt] is that we were dehumanizing the other, and it’s not only a fear — it’s a reality. You know of the Muslim Brotherhood — it’s one thing to attack political leaders, it’s another to attack people like Magdy who have been very conflicted about their role with the Muslim Brotherhood and they’re definitely not part of the leadership. So I think that every single one of the characters has been really hurt by the violence that has happened. Magdy has also lost close friends and family.
Karim Amer: The main characters, the main three that the film focuses on, Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy, all three of them are unwilling to compromise on their principles. All three of them realize that what’s happening in Egypt is a founding period, and not just a transition — that every inch they fight for will be worth miles in the future.
They’re steadfast and committed to this endlessly relentless spirit. They feel that something was born in the Square. And to me and Ahmed and many others, it’s this feeling of a sense of authorship, the idea that we the people, we the everyday Egyptians have a right to write our futures, to write our story. I think that it’s a dedicated few like Ahmed, Khalid and Magdy, who are committed day in and day out to keep that sense of authorship alive and to keep expressing it, whether it’s through alternative media like Mosireen (Khalid’s media collective) or through blogging, Tweeting, and Facebook — or whether it’s through video that Ahmed is shooting, street conversations or graffiti art. These are all part of the same kind of voice that we’re all trying to break free and say we have a right to exist, we have a voice, and we’re going to continue.
GALO: Jehane, there were a lot of dangers and challenges while you and your team were shooting this documentary — one of the big things you mentioned during your Q&A at the Doc Film Festival was that you were arrested and your camera was taken away. What was that experience like, what footage was lost, and how did it, if at all, further shape or influence your film and your relationship to the struggle?
JN: First of all, it was a real collaboration to be on this team. Everybody on this team was either arrested or shot or, you know, tased by the police or army. This wasn’t the kind of film where you could put out a job offer. It ended up being people who wanted to be there anyway; many of them had cameras, and we all decided to collaborate on this film. You’re building trust with these characters, and the reason they trust you is because you’re putting yourself in the same position that they are.