The Square, an Oscar-nominated documentary by director Jehane Noujaim, follows core activists during the Egyptian Revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarack, and then saw the rise and fall of Mohamed Morsi.
In an interview with WITNESS, Noujaim explains how the documentary was constructed from 1,600 hours of footage, the role of citizen video in the making of it and how collaborative production brought the whole film together.
Q: How did the project originate? When did you know you had material enough for a full-length documentary about the Egyptian revolution?
Jehane Noujaim: I grew up just ten minutes from Tahrir Square, and my family still lives in Cairo. I came to the square with plans to make a film, but I was not sure what the story was. In the first few weeks the entire crew met each other in the square and we began looking for characters to follow and began filming. If I weren’t a filmmaker, I would have been there anyway. I often find myself shooting people and situations that I am drawn to. It’s part of the process. The footage doesn’t always turn into a film. This one did.
By the time we finished shooting, we had over 1600 hours worth of material. We cut a finished film in 2012 and took it to Sundance a year later, where it won the Audience Award. But the story wasn’t over. The situation on the ground had changed again and our characters were once again the in thick of things back in Cairo. We realized we had to continue the story. We had to go back to Tahrir and keep shooting. As a result the film became a deeper, more complex story.
Q: How did you find each of the characters you ended up featuring in the film? Were there others you followed who didn’t make it into the film?
JN: The magic of Tahrir Square is that it drew in people from all walks of life, it was easy to find a diverse cast of characters that any audience could relate to. We started with about six characters in the film; out of that Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy emerged as the central figures. Their stories fit together in a character arc that was understandable, coherent, and didn’t pull you too far from what was happening in Tahrir Square. They were also characters I fell in love with — Khalid for his fire and eloquence, Magdy for his faithfulness and open-mindedness, and Ahmed for his sheer charisma and magnetism.
One character that didn’t make it into the film was Buthayna Kamel, the first person I called when the rumblings started in 2011. She was in my 2007 BBC documentary Egypt:We Are Watching You, about a group of women in Egypt fighting for political change long before the revolution started. Buthayna used to work as a newscaster, but quit because she said she was no longer going to tell lies on behalf of the government. She decided to run for the presidency, the first woman in Egypt to do so. We followed her during her entire campaign, but painfully had to take her out because she deserved her own story, and we wanted to keep the film about the public space of the square itself and how it was used as a political tool.
Q: What safety measures or precautions were undertaken to keep those in front of and behind the cameras safe while filming?
JN: For one thing, we all shot the film with Canon DSLRs, which made it look like we were just taking photos. Otherwise, our cameras would have been confiscated by the police. One of the characters in the film — Pierre — lived in an apartment just a few minutes away from Tahrir. It became our safety blanket, a place to run to if we needed to get away. Also we began to rent an office a few minutes away from the Square which we would run to, download footage at, and discuss our shooting plans.
But there really wasn’t a set protocol that we went by. At the start, we found ourselves in the middle of a river, one that none of us expected to be in or had even prepared for. Eventually, safety measures organically emerged. We made a point to look out for each other all the time. Like Ahmed says in the film, “We loved each other without really knowing each other.”
It was very important that the crew came from Egypt — that they were protestors and that they wanted to be there anyway — because we didn’t know where the story was going. What you see is not one person’s film, but a collaborative effort between stakeholders in what was taking place, by people who deeply cared about the future of the country.
Q: What key lessons did your team learn about the benefits and the challenges of shooting citizen video?
JN: This film could not have been made without utilizing citizen video.
For example, a month after Mubarak stepped down — while Egypt was still in a post revolutionary hangover — Ramy Essam, the singer of the revolution, was arrested and tortured by the army in the Egyptian museum. He was electrocuted, beaten, and hung by his hair. He spent weeks in bed recovering from his injuries. At the time, people refused to believe that the military would torture someone. The military was still widely viewed as heroes of the revolution, and there was no local or international media coverage of some of the things that were happening on the ground. Looking back now, it was a foreshadowing of what was to come.
Aida El Kashef, had a camera and she shot a video documenting the results of Ramy’s torture so there would be no doubt what had happened. It was then that Mosireen — a media activism collective founded by Khalid and Aida — was formed, with the goal of putting cameras into locations that would normally never have cameras. Mosireen set up a headquarters downtown where they began training people on how to shoot video and edit and upload pieces. Some of what they shot made its way into the finished film.
In fact, about a quarter of this film, including some of the most of the incredible footage from the frontline of the protests, where you literally feel like you’re being fired at, was shot by Ahmed, the film’s lead subject. Ahmed actually studied journalism, but like many young Egyptians, he had to do whatever job he could find to make a living. He had no real training in filmmaking. Our Director of Photography, Muhammed Hamdy, taught Ahmed how to properly use a camera, and over the course of shooting this film, he used that camera as a weapon to fight back and expose human rights abuses and oppression that he saw.
Many times when he was on the front line, Ahmed was the only one there with a camera. The other protesters would form a circle around him and make sure he was protected. They would say to him, “Record, Ahmed! Record!” because it was so important for them that there was a witness, that what was happening was documented. Otherwise their stories wouldn’t get reported. That’s how it was.
Some of the footage shot for this film has been used as evidence in legal cases, a lot of it was uploaded to YouTube to try to show the world what was happening in Egypt after the media had stopped covering it. Footage has even been used in reportage by major news organizations.
Q:The visual arts and music are huge forces in the revolutionary period. You document the work of muralist Ammar Akbo Bakr throughout the film and singer Ramy Essam figures prominently. Although some works such as Akbo Bakr’s murals were intended to be temporary and shifting, did you set out to create an archive of sorts in the film of the cultural and artistic activity that was taking place along side the protests?
The role of art in the Egyptian revolution cannot be exaggerated. That’s why it’s such an essential through-line in the film, because artists were at the forefront of the changes taking place in Egypt. From the start, culture and freedom of expression were at the heart of the movement. I think that the Cultural Revolution — the explosion of art, painting, writing, and poetry — continues to be something that inspires Egyptians. There are so many initiatives and collectives now for people to express themselves, to express the revolution, to claim ownership of their country. We ourselves were making a film or documenting events as they unfolded through our characters. What you see in the final film and the rest of the other 1599 hours of footage not in the film is, I guess, a form of an archive.
Q: Although you have not been able to officially screen the film in Egypt, have the main characters been able to see it? What have reactions been from Egyptians in the diaspora who have been able to see the film?
The main characters have all seen the film and they are, of course, following all the stories about the film on social media. You have to keep in mind that for them the revolution is still going on. They are very much still in the thick of it. In fact, as Egypt marked the third anniversary of the January 25 uprising, it was quite tense for them.
As for Egyptians in the diaspora, they typically approach the film with a degree of apprehension. Given the ever shifting and increasingly unstable situation in Egypt, this is understandable. We frankly didn’t know what to expect from them. Now that we have been doing screening after screening all over North America and in the UK, we have been seeing Egyptians from across the spectrum of Egyptian society respond differently to the film.
Look, it’s a really dark and divided time for Egyptians – not just those in the country, but in the diasporas as well. Egyptians are torn apart by what’s happening in their country. Some have said that Egypt is descending into civil war. Watching the film, however, and especially the relationship between Ahmed and Magdy, the Muslim Brotherhood member, has given them a completely different perspective. Their story personalized the commonality of the human struggle in Egypt despite the deep political divides. Even though Ahmed and Magdy have different political perspectives, the caring and the love, the loyalty and friendship they display to each other at the end of the film has given a lot of the Egyptians who’ve seen the film hope that Egypt can still be united.
Q: What message do you think The Square will convey to worldwide audiences about Egypt’s post revolutionary period?
JN: The Square is not the seminal film on the Egyptian revolution. I don’t think that anybody can claim to do that. It’s not a piece of journalism, and it doesn’t pretend to tell the entire story of the revolution. And it certainly is not a “one-sided,” “naïve,” or “dangerous” depiction of Egyptian politics, as some have suggested.
This is a vérité documentary about the journey of a handful of characters in Tahrir Square; how they come from different walks of life, but are completely united in their unwillingness to compromise on their principles. Ultimately it’s about greatness emerging out of chaos. My responsibility as the director was to be truthful to these characters and to take the audience deep into their stories. In the end, this is not a film about the Egyptian revolution. It is a film about the Egyptians who are living through it.
Like Ahmed says in the film, “only we can tell our stories, only we can write our stories. It’s our time to bring back the narrative, to show the power of our communities to be our own storytellers.” This film is a direct product of this phenomenon.
The Square is now streaming on Netflix.