Director Jehane Noujaim on her Oscar Nominated Doc The Square
An Oscar nomination can vault a young filmmaker into the big leagues. But for Jehane Noujaim, director of The Square, it means that her film might have the chance to be seen by many of the people who made it. The Square, a powerful, on-the-ground look at Egypt’s revolutionary uprising, was shot by Noujaim and a largely Egyptian crew on the volatile streets in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square for more than two years. Despite winning awards at both the Sundance Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, censors have prevented the film from screening in Egypt. But with the Oscar nomination—the first Egyptian film ever nominated for one—Noujaim hopes that will change.
The Credits spoke with Noujaim, who was born in the U.S. but whose family lives in Egypt, over the telephone about her film.
The Credits: Is the Oscar nomination a game changer for The Square?
Jehane Noujaim: I’ve made five films but never tried to qualify any for an Oscar before. We decided that for this one it was crucial to do it because we knew it would put this story on an international stage and put it in a place where it can’t be silenced. There’s an attempt to whitewash the human rights abuses that have existed in Egypt for the past two and a half years. Once that happens, the killings and abuses will continue. Recognition of this film in Egypt — as a new Constitution is being written; as a new president being elected; as a new parliament is being elected — could affect the conversation on the ground and that so important right now.
It hasn’t been able to screen anywhere in Egypt. Do you think the publicity and attention will change that?
Even just a discussion of the film’s possible nomination resulted in phone calls from the Middle East equivalent of Jon Stewart and Christiane Amanpour. Once the film is on their radar, it’s going to be difficult for it to be ignored. It helps bring the conversation to light because even conversations and interviews with people are being challenged; that’s why it’s so important to encourage freedom of speech. We’ll get the film out by USB or online or blow up screens, if not too dangerous on the streets of Cairo. But the hope is to get past censors and get it into theaters in Egypt.
You were arrested in Nov. 2011 and spent more than 40 hours in prison. How did you cope with the danger and want to stay in the Square?
If you asked me 4 years ago if I’d ever put myself in a position where I was running from the police or army, I would have said ‘you’re nuts.’ But there’s an incredible transformation that goes on when you’re standing in a square with people that are putting everything on the line: their families, their lives, their livelihood, risking life in prison. You are sitting with them because they believe that by sticking to their principles they can change the country and something changes inside you. I was taught fearlessness because everyone in that square was fighting for something so much bigger than themselves. The attitude was they were fighting for the future. We were also there as witnesses. Some of our footage has been used in court cases and by news oulets; often we were the only camera there.
How did you decide on the characters you would follow?
We started following about eight people. You look for somebody who’s going to take you into worlds that you would never ordinarily get to see and that surprise you, challenge you, characters you fall in love with… I met Ahmed and fell in love with him in five minutes. He has such a spirit and a deep optimism, I knew right away he’d be the person who could take us through this story. We wanted this film to be about the zeitgeist of our time, which is about the use of a public space to change things politically. We wanted to focus on the people that stayed in and kept returning to that square.
Are you in danger if you return to Egypt?
That’s a good questions. Egypt is in such a crazy time right now. I would never have imagined that a journalist working for Al Jeezera could be arrested and accused of being a Brotherhood supporter. There’s no rhyme or reason to things. That’s the uncertainty that makes people afraid to do anything. I’ve mad these decisions but what gets nasty is when the situation affects your family. They live in Cairo and I’m afraid for them, not myself.
Most Americans don’t see what’s happening in Egypt on the news. Was the lack of understanding or interest one of your motivations to tell this story?
It’s always been said that history is written by the victor. But with new technology, with affordable cameras, with the ability to upload, that is changing. For many years, news has fallen into the problem of telling news in a three-minute soundbites. You can’t get something this complex in a soundbite. This is where a long form documentary can come in and, by following the personal stories of characters, really shed light on the emotions and roller coaster ride and real debates and discussions that have led to the moments you see on the news.
The film is so immediate, it reminds me of the work of war correspondents. What experience did you draw on to know how to get that kind of footage?
I made my first film, Startup.com, with Chris Hegedus and Pennebaker. I would take breaks from editing and watch their films from the ‘60s … their goal is to become part of the furniture and gain the trust of characters. It’s the closet you can get to time travel. I knew there would be a lot of films about this moment in history; in the Middle East, it’s the civil rights movement of our time. But what we created is that feeling of being there, so I stressed to everyone on our incredible team was that we had to follow the characters and go as deep as you can into the personal story. This was a collaboration that grew organically from the square. It just grew from being there. Everyone met in the square; there was no other way to do it. This had to be an Egyptian-made film. It was so important that this story be told as the revolution was happening at every level of society, including in the film industry where people suddenly felt everyone could have a chance and a break. There are such talented young people who want to tell stories, who want to learn sound and camera equipment, and we gathered people who were protesters to make the film with us. This is a film that so many people in Egypt feel they have a stake in because they made it.
Featured image: Director Jehane Noujam, courtesy of The Square.