The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim and produced by Karim Amer, is a riveting documentary that immerses the audience in the intense emotional drama and inspiring story of revolution behind the headlines. From the 2011 overthrow of a 30-year dictator, through military rule, and culminating with the forced military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood president in the summer of 2013, we follow a group of Egyptian activists armed with nothing more than cameras, social media, videos posted to YouTube, and a resolute determination to liberate their nation. They battle leaders and regimes and risk their lives to build a brighter future.
In an exclusive interview, the Egyptian-American filmmakers spoke about the organic way the project came together, the decision to tell this story through the eyes of young activists, why it was important to document the heroic acts of ordinary people, how the events that transpired in Tahrir Square represent a magical moment in their country’s history and an opportunity to bring change to Egypt for generations to come, the powerful role of social media in telling their story, why this isn’t just a local problem but a global issue, their thoughts on the future of Egypt’s political landscape, and plans to work together again. Check out the interview after the jump.
JEHANE NOUJAIM: I had been following events in Egypt for a long time. I grew up in Egypt ten minutes away from the Square. I made a film in 2006 called Egypt: We Are Watching You about three women fighting for political change. When the rumblings were happening that there was going to be a huge protest on January 25th, there was no place in the world I wanted to be more. I got to the middle of the protest when the military had come down, and there I met the entire crew. This is very unique for a documentary that an entire crew meets in the Square. This film was really born out of the Square. We all met each other. We were all there. We wanted to do something, to contribute in some way just like everybody else was contributing to what was happening in that Square. Doctors were making make-shift clinics, and electricians were figuring out how to find places to get electricity from the street lamp to charge people’s cell phones on strips. As filmmakers, we knew that we could document what the television and the media were not documenting. I met Karim (Amir). I met the D.P. I met everybody in the Square. I met the characters in the first couple of weeks before Mubarak stepped down. You find characters based on how you feel about them. If they’re people that you want to wake up to and follow, if you fall in love with them, if you know they’re going to surprise you and challenge your views and take you to places you’ve never been, then you know that these are people that you want to follow and you know that they’re going to affect an audience as well. That’s really how the whole thing started, very organically.
Why was it important for you to make a film about Egyptian people taking a stand about the future they hope to create for their country? How is that a paradigm shift from the Egyptian society that you grew up in?
NOUJAIM: First of all, Karim definitely has something to say on this question as well. This was a magical moment because what we have in the U.S. are these stories of change, of the individual being able to fight for change as an individual affecting others. We have Rosa Parks who sat at the back of the bus. We have these individual stories of heroes. And, in Egypt, we have much more these stories of Gamal Abdel Nasser that comes in, or the Pharaoh that is born a Pharaoh and is able to change things. I think that it is very important that children grow up with these stories of these individual heroes. I saw that daily while I was in that Square. I saw people doing small heroic acts that were changing their country and people believing in the power of people for the first time. To document that, to be able to hold a megaphone to those incredible acts that were happening, and to those everyday heroes, I felt would be something that was important for our country to be able to look to for years to come. Karim also felt like what we were witnessing in those early days was a very different Egypt than the one that we grew up in.
KARIM AMER: In Egypt and the Middle East, we come from a very rich tradition and history, and storytelling is part of our identity. However, the reality is that most young Egyptians, when they come down to the streets, realize that the story they’ve been told about the greatness of who they are and their great country is a story of the past. The present story is one that is quite somber and one that isn’t full of hope. It’s one where people don’t feel empowered. What happened in that Square was a break from that. For the first time, Egyptians said, “We’re going to write our own stories. We are living in an interconnected world. We have access to the internet. We can see beyond the borders we live in and we know we can do better and we deserve better.” That’s the fundamental shift that has happened. What the film really focuses on, to us, is what connects the three main characters – Ahmed (Hassan), Magdy (Ashour) and Khalid (Abdalla). Despite coming from completely different backgrounds, all three of them are unwilling to give up on that sense of authorship for the future. They know that in their hands lies the opportunity to change Egypt for generations to come and the epicenter of that seismic change is in that Square.
For us, we really wanted to get into that relationship of what it means to fight for change. And also, we have to go through this process of dispelling ourselves from these stories of change that we get stuck in, which is kind of like change’s greatest hits where we only get the moments of change – where we see Mandela as he’s liberating South Africa or as we see (Mahatma) Gandhi doing it in India or we see Martin Luther King saying, “I have a dream.” We don’t see Mandela in jail for years, lonely and wondering, when nobody believes one thing. We don’t see Gandhi when he’s being kicked to the floor and no one believes him. We don’t see Martin Luther King when he wasn’t so eloquent and wasn’t parsing his words. We need to break free of these kinds of fairy tales of change and look at the realities of it. It was important for us to really show this story and tap into that echo chamber of global change stories.
The film offers a fascinating perspective from the inside out. Why did you decide to tell this story from the viewpoint of young activists and have someone like Ahmed Hassan guide audiences through this revolutionary world?
NOUJAIM: I think you decide on your story because you are excited by something or surprised by something. And that happens when I feel like I’m seeing people that are challenging me. Those tend to be people who are pushing the boundaries of what is expected and changing the narrative. Initially, when I went in to make the film, I actually thought that it might be interesting to do something similar to what I did in Control Room where I had Al Jazeera and I had the Military Central Command. When I went to Egypt, I thought it could be fascinating to have the revolutionary perspective, the military perspective, the police perspective, the business community perspective, and we went around. Some places we could get more access to than others. We got very limited access to the military. You saw the access that we got. But what we found was that it was these activists that were in the Square fighting for change that were the most exciting story to follow, because these were people that were rethinking a future for Egypt. They weren’t stuck in the same old stories that these other groups that I just described to you were. These were people that were re-envisioning a future and refusing to stay stuck in these very old narratives.
Ragia Omran, the human rights lawyer, was interviewed by CNN months after Mubarak stepped down. A month after Mubarak stepped down the military issued a protest law banning protests, which was the whole reason why Mubarak was taken down to begin with. Ragia said to the CNN reporter, “We have to protest the protest law,” and the CNN reporter said, “You can’t protest it because protests are banned,” and she said, “Yes. We have to challenge that and see what happens.” That’s where we were. We were in a world where laws were changing, the entire world that surrounded us was changing, and the people that were the most exciting people to follow were on the front lines of that change and challenging the status quo every single day, and are continuing still to challenge the status quo. Ragia, every day, is challenging how things are done.
Even as the film gets released, there’s a lot of debate about the film in Egypt, but there’s incredible support for it by the youth of Egypt. And the way that it’s been shared online and recopied, and now we have over a million and a half views online from Egypt, it’s so exciting. It’s never happened before. It’s like this film is a football game or something. They’ve taken it to the coffee shops and they’re watching it downtown. Many young people are extremely excited about it and that’s a huge population in the country. Seventy percent of the population is under the age of forty.
Of course, there’s still the establishment that are questioning this film. The authorities are questioning it, and we are trying to figure out how to get it through a very bureaucratic system of censorship. Ahmed is amazing. He is living this every day on the streets and he’s basically saying, “No, we have to continue challenging. We have to be threatened with arrest every single day.” Magdy’s house was broken into by police and his computer was taken, so he’s in hiding right now. Each one of these characters has a bravery that is difficult to comprehend, because they are still on the frontlines of that change and putting everything that they have on the line for that change to happen.
Where do you see things going from here in terms of building Egypt’s new democracy?
AMER: I think that it’s an ongoing struggle, that what was born in that Square was this feeling of hope, this sense of authorship for the future that a dedicated few are unwilling to give up on. They will continue, as we see in the film, to keep pushing back and keep pushing back, and once and a while they will inspire the majority to come down with them. It’s a process of learning how to hold power accountable. When you live in a country where you don’t have independence to share, where you don’t have rule of law, where you don’t have freedom of speech, the street becomes your only way. I think it’s going to continue to be pushed through and it’s something we need to pay attention to.
When you see Cairo, Kiev, Athens and Rio, you see a people power movement coming down from different parts of the world, different economic backgrounds, different religions, different ethnicities, and you start to think that this is not just a local problem but maybe a global issue. You start to think that there could be this moment that we’re in, like 1968 and others, where people power is trying to write the social contract, where young populations that are interconnected and are unwinding the borders that we live in are saying, “We can do better. We deserve to do better.” I think the sooner we start to see it in a global context, the sooner we’ll have solutions and understanding. Of course, coming from a film background, I think that culture will play an important role, because these stories, when we celebrate them and we highlight them, we reignite the power of witness. We show that no matter how far the Square is, when there’s active injustice happening from where you live, it doesn’t matter because we are connected, and we can make a difference regardless of how far we live.
What’s next? Will the two of you be collaborating again in the future?
AMER: Yes, I think so because the bond that is between us is pretty strong. We also have 1,600 hours of footage from the collection of this film so there are more stories to come out. And both of us being Egyptian and American, I think we have always lived between these two worlds, and we feel that we have a role to play in bridging the gap and understanding this storytelling. I hopefully look forward to future projects.
NOUJAIM: I hope we do many more projects together in the future. I think that this project has been a collaboration and a labor of love with many other talented filmmakers. We all met each other in the Square. We’re driven by the same spirit that we know that we can make, as Amer said, films that are both exciting and entertaining but also have a deep social value for change embedded in them as well.
Congratulations on your Oscar nomination and winning the DGA Director Prize.
NOUJAIM: Thank you so much. We’re thrilled and we’re greatly honored to be in the company of so many other very talented filmmakers and storytellers as well.