In 2011, there was a public occupation of Tahrir Square in Egypt that culminated in the resignation of corrupt dictator Hosni Mubarak. While this meant the end of one heinous era, the fight for an Egypt sans military or government corruption is an ever-enduring story. In the western world, very little was revealed about the events as they occurred, hence the dire need for Jehane Noujaim‘s documentary The Square.
This Netflix original already dominated the film festival circuit in 2013, with its intimate commentary following six revolutionaries desperate for social change. The Square is unleashed in the UK tomorrow and to celebrate its release we had the chance to speak with the film’s director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer.
It’s common for a documentary to be composed from afar, or retrospectively, or outside of the context of the event itself, when the documentary in question is based on historical events or conflict. How did you feel about recording on the front-lines, knowing that what you’ve recorded is essentially an important piece of history. Were you at all nervous, or apprehensive?
Jehane: There will be many films that will be made about this topic, that will be retrospective, or narrated, but what one can’t recreate is the feeling of being in a revolution, feeling like a character, being in the confusion, having to put everything on the line to fight for what you believe in. We wanted to bring the audience in on that. In terms of apprehension; I grew up on Tahrir square, so anyone who helped on the film were people who felt that this was a tool that would help their country. So it wasn’t a situation where we could hire someone to come in. It was a film that came out of the square, a film of Egyptian people writing and forging their own story. There were times where the entire team got shot at, tear gassed. I got arrested twice, our producer went to the hospital, blood pouring down his face, hit on the head…And what he said, was ‘Yeah I’m hurt, but look at the footage I just got”, this project was so bigger than ourselves, and that gives you the strength to continue. I was working with people who were putting everything on the line, that taught you a kind of fearlessness, not afraid to go to prison.
Karim: Three weeks after Hosni Mubarek stepped down, after people were tortured in the museum of Egypt, there was absolutely no mention on news local, or abroad of this event. So people had this dream that one movement, one protest would remove a dictator, and effectively create democracy in 18 days, which will ultimately not happen. That’s not the world we live in, there are other elements. We wanted to represent that spirit, for people fighting for this state, that embodies its people. So, that involved us using the camera, capturing this moment. We had over 1600 hours of material; you’re constantly filming, filming active injustice. That’s why we’ve shared our footage with news stations locally and abroad, alongside alternative media collectives. That’s why the whole team felt this kind of resilience to this way of filming. In terms of being on the front lines, the main character Ahmed, learns how to film in the film. He was a street poet, preacher, and he filmed over a quarter of the film, everything on the front line was mostly him.
Do you think ‘The Square’ embodies the power of the documentary? The idea that simply recording something is a powerful tool within itself?
Jehane: There’s a power in witness, a power in people paying attention, there’s a huge power in the kind of support we got from audiences worldwide, who through articles, through tweets, the Oscar short-list. This international community, other Egyptians have deemed it an important story to be told, and discussed, and witnessed. You have to be relentless in the struggle, it’s been three years, you’ve gotta have staying power, these people have been shot, been imprisoned, it’s important that these people on the ground feel heard, and feel that their stories have been witnessed. It gives people the courage to continue. There has been the past where people have been jailed, and no one has talked, or witnessed these injustices. So, it’s encouraging to feel you’ve got back-up, in some form, be it the camera.
Karim: Egyptian history is traditionally told by the winners, by the victors. So with this new camera technology and digital communication, it’s a way of telling stories, where the tale can’t only be told by fascists and the state, those people who intend on terrorising people. This is our way of fighting back. We’re currently in one of those moments in history.
As you said previously, you had roughly about 1600 hours of footage. That’s a huge amount of footage, compared to the restrictive timeframe of a hundred minutes, in which you had to tell your story. How did you approach that daunting process of deciding what was worthy for the cut, and what wasn’t?
Jehane: It’s a character driven film, the more personal you can make a film like this, the more human the characters are, the more the audience feels the universal struggle for change, the more it will resonate with people from the around the world, regardless of background. So we follow characters, follow them through this experience, victories and failures considered, trying to tell this personal tale. In terms of editing, the way you form a structure is looking at these life-changing moments in these characters, and magnifying them. You look for the moments where your opinion or situation might be changed, if you experience a moment that might change you perception, the chance’s are it’ll have that same effect on your audience. Those moments where your charcters feel they have everything to lose, that’s what you hope to share with the world. That’s the kind of cross-over you have, documenting the situation, alongside the story of the square and characters. This concept really reflects this zietgiest of the times, using this square, as a social space, where people will be recognized and heard. The story is the intersection between important personal moments, and the story of the square.
Karim: I think it’s a very difficult process, to try and pick what narratives you want to tell. The way we approached the process, was by making it a character driven film. This is by no means going to be the only account of the Egyptian revolution. This is a very significant event of the 21st century, and our film is primarily about 3 characters and their experiences through and fighting for the square. We make no claims that it’s a journalistic piece, it’s a film, it’s a human story. We wanted it to be universal, someone who knows nothing about Egypt who doesn’t watch the news, could understand the situation, feel empathy for those fighting in that situation. We were so lucky to have characters from different backgrounds, for this purpose. What unites those 3 characters are all of them understand the significance of this movement, and aren’t willing to compromise. As gruelling and difficult as it is, you can’t compromise on certain principles.
The traditional mode of documentary is to film in an objective stance, and is usually far less involved in the subject. Were there any particular directors or documentaries that steered you towards this character based structure?
Jehane: Well, all of Pennebaker’s films, people I first learned with, the key is to gain the trust of your characters, they’re giving you the gift of their lives, to share with the world. And so, I’ve always found if you look at any of these films, you learn a lot more about the situations, these characters are open to you, the collaboration between direction and character is key. They know a lot more about their own journeys and lives that anyone else could. I love this way of making films, you get less out of a story, if you don’t have this relationship with characters. Obviously there are other films, objective films that are great. But we wanted to share this experience of these characters, and they claimed it was very truthful to their stories. During the process of taking slices of two years, condensing it into 100 minutes, the result needs to be a watchable film, that is able to share a glimpse of that character’s experience.
That’s all great. Is there anything else you’d like to say to round off, that we perhaps missed in our line of questions?
Jehane: To close, I think this is the most personal film I’ve ever made, and it’s quite incredible how it was made, it was such an organic process, no pre-production. People who just decided they wanted to be a part of this, people who had worked on this process, and people who hadn’t. The square formed this collaboration, that’s an exciting thing. It would have been a very different film if I assembled a crew, this is a film made by people who had a huge personal stake in their country changing. It really required people who were willing to shoot, who saw the importance of waiting, watching, observing. You feel a part of this moment, in the fight for change, often at times you don’t know what’s important, in what you’re filming, but it all feels important. I’m eternally grateful for people who worked on the film, risked their lives to be in the film, everyone who worked on it inhaled enough tear gas for a lifetime. They would not do that, if they didn’t think this cause was capable of causing change, in some form. Everyone felt like they were not only working on a film, but shooting for other purposes, that were important for the spirit of this struggle for change.
We’d like to thank Jehane and Karim for sharing some insight into their highly compelling documentary. Be it story or news piece, it’s a piece of film everyone needs to see. We can’t recommend enough that you catch it on Netflix and VOD tomorrow (10 January). We’ll leave you with a trailer for the film and don’t forget to keep up to date with @thesquarefilm on Twitter.