Time Travel: Arab Spring on the Ground in “The Square”

Just about a year ago, director Jehane Noujaim accepted the Audience Award at Sundance Film Festival for “The Square,” the documentary feature that follows a group of Egyptian activists in their battle to reshape Egypt’s government and identity.  Friday, January 17, “The Square” will be released by Netflix for streaming throughout the world and in theatres in select cities across the U.S. and Canada.

Sundance Film Festival 2014 kicks off one day prior, and the filmmakers will learn on that day whether “The Square” (which has already been shortlisted by the Academy), will earn the Academy nomination as one of five documentary features in contention for the prize. Update: “The Square” has been nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Academy Award.

Noujaim describes “The Square” as “an immersive experience” – and that it is.  “The Square” takes you right into the thick of the action in Tahrir Square to experience the emotional “roller-coaster ride” of the Arab spring and the profound changes shaking things apart in Egypt.  When I ask Noujaim how a documentary film can tell the story of an evolving revolution differently from the news media, she responds, “The news media is effective at naming historical events, whereas a documentary film can transport you there.  At its best, documentary film is the closest we’ve got to time travel.”

The film follows a handful of characters on the ground in Tahrir Square, including secular activist Ahmed Hassan, a foot soldier of the Muslim Brotherhood Magdy Ashour, actor and activist Khalid Abdalla, human rights lawyer Ragia Omran, and protest singer Ramy Essam.  In the end of the film, Ahmed has come to the realization that the results of an election will not dictate the future of Egypt.  The mission of the revolutionaries is “to create conscience in society” – an awareness that the people have the right to demand the removal of any regime that sits on the chair of power that refuses to adhere to the new social contract that the Egyptians are attempting to write.  This is a profound insight that merits broadcast throughout the region and beyond.

In 2006, Noujaim received the Ted Award in recognition for her achievement in directing, “Control Room,” an honor that she shares with Bono and President Clinton.  As a reward, she was granted one wish to be fulfilled by the TED organization.  In 2008, TED produced “Pangea Cinema Day,” the day the world came together through the power of film with screenings in 100 countries, at 1800 locations.  Seven years later, when I inquire about new wishes to fulfill, Noujaim pauses and responds, “To make a good decision about when and how to show ‘The Square’ in Egypt.  To screen it in a time and place that Egyptian hearts remain open.”

On Monday, January 20, Martin Luther King Day, Noujaim and her team will be returning to Park City, Utah, for a special screening of “The Square,” hosted with Nelson Mandela’s grandson.  The version of “The Square” that screened at Sundance 2013 ended with Morsi’s election; shooting of the documentary resumed shortly thereafter, and it has been refashioned to include Morsi’s ouster.  So even if you saw “The Square” at Sundance previously, you may want to catch it again, in its revised and finished state.

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THE SQUARE director Jehane Noujaim. Photographer: Ahmed Hassan.

Sophia Stein:  I am sure that you have been crazy busy with the opening of your film.

Jehane Noujaim:  It has been different from a normal release where you would just be talking with people present in the United States.  The film is opening around the world, so it is being talked about in America, Chile, Argentina — yesterday we talked to London, the day before, Brazil.

S2:  Is this unprecedented?

JN:  There definitely has never been a Netflix Original documentary worldwide release before, so this is a first.  “The Square” is being released simultaneously on Netflix and in theatres in select cities including Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington D.C., and Toronto.  It will also be screening at film festivals in Mexico City, Berlin and Istanbul.

S2:  Netflix is actually available all over the world now?

JN:  Netflix is available in many parts of the world. The places that they are releasing “The Square” on January 17th, are:  the U.S., Canada, all over Latin America — from Mexico down to Argentina and Chile, Scandinavia, the U.K., Ireland, and the Netherlands.

S2:  That’s phenomenal!  Any progress yet regarding permissions from the Egyptian Censorship Board to release “The Square” in Egypt?

JN:  We submitted the film to the Censorship Board for their approval three months ago.  The first feedback was — that it was fine.  Then, the next feedback we received, was that they needed to send it to the Army for approval — which according to our human right’s lawyer, Ragia Omran, the Army is not supposed to have any authority in regards to censorship.  Nonetheless, the Army came back and said that they did not approve the film because the General in the film “does not represent them.”  The Censorship Board granted us permission for one screening only, for a limited audience.  So far, we do not have permission to release the film publically in cinemas in Egypt.  So our hope is, to go back to the Censorship Board, after hosting private screenings for people within the government, and make the case that in Egypt (like in South Africa or any country in transition), there are many successes and many failures.  A lot of huge mistakes are made, and until those mistakes are acknowledged, apologized for, and discussed openly, there is no way for our country to move forward.

This whole censorship process really mirrors what we are talking about in the film  How you have to continue to push against unjust laws, and the idea of censorship is unjust.  It is against freedom of speech and open discussion.

Just after the tanks had run over civilians in Tahrir Square, secret police were sent into the hospitals with Priests, to tell families that they really should bury the bodies immediately.  Imagine just loosing your loved one and you are being told by a Priest who is being pressured by the Secret Police — that you should bury the body immediately!  So Ragia would talk to the families and explain, “I know that you are under a lot of pressure to bury the body, but these bodies need to be autopsied — because we need to demand justice.  The reason why these human rights abuses are happening is because people have not spoken up to challenge them before, and we cannot continue to remain silent.”  We may not win; we may not get justice this time, but if we keep pushing and keep letting people know that they will be punished, that there will be accountability for unjust actions like these, then things will begin to change.  That is what the entire film is about.  That is what people in Egypt are fighting for.  This is what we hope the film will accomplish when it comes out in Egypt.

The vote on the new Egyptian Constitution will take place on the 17th of this month, the same day that “The Square” will be released by Netflix across the world.  I don’t know whether the Censorship Board, however, is going to move its approval through for that day.

S2:  Have you seen that Constitution?  Are you confident that the people that are drafting the Constitution are drafting a democratic Constitution?

JN:  The major problem that the revolutionaries have with the draft for the new Constitution is that there is still this clause that civilians may be put on military trial.  There is also the issue that the military would continue to oversee the Defense Minister for eight years.  I do believe that this Constitution will be voted on and that the “Yes” vote is going to win.  If I looked into my crystal ball, probably by 70%.  I assume that it is going to be a high number because people are exhausted, and desperately in need of political stability.  What they are getting from the television stations is that a vote “Yes” for the new Constitution means that the country will move forward, there will be stability, the economy will revive, and people will be able to get jobs.

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Egyptian activist Ramy Essam (R) in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary THE SQUARE. Courtesy of Noujaim Films.

S2:  I know that you expressed concerns over the timing of the release of the film in Egypt.  Given the status of what is going down on the ground, do you think that now is the right time?

JN:  That’s a very good question.  A lot of our friends have expressed that this is a very difficult time.  There is an arrest warrant out for Ramy Essam [the protest singer]; Magdy [Ashour – Muslim Brotherhood supporter] has been worried about staying at home these days and has given us his wife’s number in case anything happens to him; and our dear friend Moody [Mohamed Fahmy, Al Jazeera producer] has just been arrested.  At the same time, Ahmed [Hassan – the secular activist] reports, “I’m talking to people on the ground in the coffee shops, and I believe that people are much smarter than the media is making them out to be.  They know when they are being manipulated.  They are going to continue fighting against the corrupt regime.  If anything has been proven over the last three years, it’s that Egyptians will not stand to be living under a repressive regime anymore.”  So Ahmed is full of optimism, despite the fact that people have been arrested recently.  In terms of releasing the film in Egypt, on the one hand, it’s a difficult time to release it.  (I don’t know what would happen if we tried to screen it on blow-up screens around the streets of Cairo.)  At the same time, it is the ideal time to release the film in Egypt!  It is an important time for people to be watching a buddy picture about two friends who were driven apart by politics, who at the same time have a deep abiding love and sense of caring for one another.  And who both realize and concur that they need to be holding their government accountable.  The answer to all of this [upheaval in Egypt] is not a leader that is going to come in from the heavens and save everything, but for an active citizenry and population to continue fighting to build a better Egypt.

S2:  The film did screen at the Dubai International Film Festival in December.  What was the reception like there?

JN:  Fantastic!  We were so honored and excited by the response; there were many prominent Egyptian journalists and critics in the audience.  We received the top prize for Documentary Film in Dubai from Yousry Nasrallah, one of the leading Egyptian film directors.  It was as if we were being awarded a prize by the Martin Scorsese of Egypt.  Nasrallah offered us, “Anything that I can do to help.”  “How do we get through censorship?,” we appealed to him.  “Anything I can do to help … but that.  I don’t know,” he confessed.  He’s a very funny guy.

S2:  Since we spoke last, you were also awarded the International Documentary Association’s top prize for “The Square.”

JN:  It’s an award given by filmmakers, critics, and people that really know documentary film.  It was an honor to even be nominated for the prize and to be sharing that time with those other filmmakers who were also nominated.

S2:  The day before your film opens in theatres and on Netflix, on January 16, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will announce the five documentaries nominated for the Academy Award this year. What would an Academy Award nomination mean for the film, for you and your crew, and for the Egyptian people?

JN:  I have made five films; I have never gone through this before with any of the films.  With “The Square,” I feel that it is crucially important for the film to be discussed on an international level and to be shown in Egypt.  If the film is nominated for an Academy Award, it would be like winning the World Cup for the Egyptians.  It would be the first Egyptian film to ever receive the nomination.  It would become impossible for the authorities to ban the film in Egypt.

Already, with the IDA award, the Dubai award, and the Oscar shortlist, we have had requests from the Egyptian media asking, “Why are we not showing this film about such a crucial chapter of Egyptian history that needs to be looked at and talked about now?!”  “Why is the entire rest of the world able to see “The Square,” and yet we are not seeing it screened in Egypt?!”  The nomination would make it, “Absolutely unstoppable,” in Ahmed’s words.  “What these nominations, and awards, and articles are doing is making the film and our story — unable to be erased.  Unable to be obliterated,” he explains.  That is so important for the people who are fighting on the ground in Egypt and who remain in jail as we speak right now.  This is a time when the authorities are trying to whitewash what has happened in Egypt during the past three years.  This is an incredible opportunity for people internationally in voting for an award like this to affect the conversation about the changing political situation in Egypt right now.  I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile — to fight for and to hope for.  If we are nominated, I believe that it would elevate the fight for freedom of speech, human rights, and social justice in Egypt.

We just had an incredible screening at the Museum of Tolerance in LA, where many members of the Jewish community came out in support of the film– and we were deeply touched and honored.  The more that we see that we are all interconnected in the fight for human rights, the more we will be able to protect human rights everywhere in the future.

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Egyptian activists Khalid Abdalla and Ahmed Hassan in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary THE SQUARE. Courtesy of Noujaim Films.

From my earlier conversation with Jehane Noujaim on December 25, 2013:

S2:  Your mom is American and your dad is Egyptian-Lebanese-Syrian.  In what ways, do you identify as an American, and in what ways do you identify as an Egyptian?

JN:  I identify as an American in that I value freedom of speech and the rights of the individual foremost.  My mom grew up marching on Washington in the protests of the 1960’s, so I was raised with that sense of political and civil justice.  The United States is respected by Egyptians, I think, for the sense of justice that it promotes on behalf of U.S. citizens throughout the world.  However, it does not always seem to Egyptians as though the United States seeks to uphold those same liberties for citizens outside her borders.  I love Egypt, and I identify with Egyptian cultural valuation of family and taking care of strangers.  In Egypt, you would never see children in the street who would not be cared for the way that you too often see in New York City, for example.

S2:  Filming of “The Square” got off to a dramatic start.  On January 25, 2011, you headed to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to meet Egypt’s leadership, when none of the leadership showed up, you flew to Cairo and headed for Tahrir Square where the protests that would lead to Mubarak’s deposition were already in progress —

JN:  With the outbreak of protests, the military had set up checkpoints all over the place.  I was stopped and brought in for seven hours of questioning at a checkpoint twenty minutes from the airport.  They took me to this place, and I did not know where I was or who was questioning me.  I just kept asking over and over again where I was and who was questioning me — which would never have occurred to Egyptians, to even ask for this information.  This is one of the fundamental civil rights that we are fighting for in making this film.  I saw a line of people who were blindfolded with hands on one another’s shoulders being marched away, some of whom were journalists. This was when the military was arresting a lot of journalists, and my fear was where they might take me after that room where I was being questioned.

On my way into Egypt, I had stopped in the U.K. to buy a DSLR still camera – apparently the military was  not confiscating these.  At the BBC, I was given DVD copies of my film “Egypt We’re Watching You” (in Arabic) which was being televised throughout Egypt.  The copies, however, mistakenly showed my real name (directed by Jehane Noujaim), instead of the pseudonym I had used for the Egyptian television release of the film (Leila Menjou).  I was concerned that the government might restrict my entry into the country if they learned my identity as the director of this film.  So, I excused myself from the interrogation room to go to the bathroom.  “I needed to get something from my car, first,” I indicated.  When they asked what, I replied, “You’re not being very polite.  I’m a woman, use your imagination!”  I tried to destroy the DVDs, to flush them down the toilet, but the man who was cleaning the bathroom found the DVD shards and brought them to my examiners.  So they searched my car and my computer.  At this point, I was being questioned by an upper level military man who spoke very good English, and I decided to come straight.  No matter the stakes, I decided to lay it on the line — which was so empowering, there is nothing like that!  And he released me.  I phoned my mom to let her know that I was heading to The Square and that I would stay with my friend Pierre who had an apartment near The Square where we could retreat, if need be.  I had never shot with that camera before and was figuring it out on the fly.  I was looking for inspiring characters, people who you want to spend time with.  Characters who stretch and illuminate your understanding.

S2:  You were on the ground in The Square on February 11, 2011, when Hosni Mubarak, stepped down.  What do you remember your own reaction that night?

JN:  I remember being overwhelmed by the possibility of change.  Not just in Egypt – in any aspect of life – family, friends, work — that you wanted to change.  The feeling that anything was possible with sustained focus.

S2:  In “The Square,” Magdy laments that they should never have left The Square after Mubarak stepped down.  He says, it is as if they had “done well on an exam, but forgotten to write their names on the exam” and take credit for what they had achieved.

JN:  The demonstrators had just spent eighteen consecutive days in The Square.  There were no bathrooms, they were sleeping there, and everyone was exhausted.  They really just needed time to regroup.

S2I remember Iranian émigré Marina Nemat, author of the memoir “Prisoner of Tehran,” cautioning her followers on Facebook that what was happening in Egypt might mirror what had happened in Iran, when as a result of the Iranian Revolution, Iran transformed from an absolute monarchy under the deposed Shah to an Islamic Republic under the Ayatollah Khomeini.  Did you and the activists you were following anticipate this potential?

JN:  Approximately, twenty percent of the citizens of Egypt are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  When we only had two choices of candidates to vote for in the 2012 Presidential election, it was such a frustrating choice.  If we voted for Ahmed Shafik, it would essentially mean that nothing had changed.  Everyone was so frustrated with the corruption and the growing economic disparity.  The Muslim Brotherhood gained in popularity for a brief time because of the social welfare it was showing for Egyptian citizens, providing food and services for the hungry.  Once in power, when the Muslim Brotherhood declared that people could not protest and be Muslims, many Egyptians took offense at that.  In one years time, their nature became evident, and Morsi was deposed.  The election of Muhammed Morsi was necessary step in the process for change.

Top Image:  Egyptian activist Ahmed Hassan in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary THE SQUARE. Courtesy of Noujaim Films.

“The Square” will be available on Netflix Originals and in select cities starting Friday, January 17.  Details here.

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