Sundance 2013: In Egypt doc ‘The Square,’ a new kind of muckraking

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PARK CITY, Utah -- The bullets and tear-gas pellets were flying at Jehane Noujaim, but instead of scrambling backward with the rest of the Cairo protesters, the documentary filmmaker walked forward into the smoky haze, where hundreds of gas mask-clad soliders waited.

Her camera in hand, Noujaim approached one of the officers and asked for an interview. To her surprise, he granted it. But a few minutes later another soldier in a ski mask spotted her. Yelling to a crowd of policemen that the Egyptian-American director was a U.S. spy, the soldier threw Noujaim into the swarm of cops, who grabbed her camera and corralled her into a paddy wagon.

For the next few days the police “disappeared” Noujaim--moving her from jail cell to jail cell a few hours outside Cairo. Her friends and crew waited on tenterhooks. Noujaim mostly kept calm, “My mom said I lack a proper sense of fear,” said the filmmaker, 38, offering a surprisingly sunny laugh as she recounted the story.


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Redemption came unexpectedly. A tweet from Noujaim’s lawyer friend about the filmmaker’s disappearance alerted a legal colleague who happened to be visiting the jail; recognizing the filmmaker from a photo in the tweet, the lawyer pressured the guards by threatening to organize a protest outside the prison. Noujaim was released. She returned to Tahrir Square the next day.

Over the last two years, a number of documentaries have tried to capture the history-making chaos of the Arab Spring. But perhaps none have done so with as much ambition—or risk to life and limb—as “The Square,” a new film from Noujaim, the director of the 2004 doc hit “Control Room.”

Premiering several days ago at the Sundance Film Festival, “The Square” chronicles the volatile life of protesters in Tahrir Square, with Noujaim and her crew spending more than 20 months camping out with their cameras in one of the most politically fraught places in the world. The resulting film has generated strong reviews at Sundance and caught the fancy of Hollywood personalities such as Sean Penn and Ezra Miller, who have expressed interest in getting involved with it.

Arrested and beaten several times in late 2011 while filming protests against the military, Noujaim and her team offer an intimate look at the revolution and its bloody aftermath. As the Egyptian uprising commemorates its two-year anniversary on Friday, “The Square” is both a demonstration of the perils of free speech in the new Middle East and an example of how documentaries might offer a rare ray of hope.

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“We originally wanted to make a movie that started with the downfall of a president and ended with the election of a president,” Noujaim said, speaking from a condo in this ski town, where the gravest danger most visitors face is when a publicist can’t find his name on an afterparty list. “But we ended up looking at the downfall of the president, then at the next group that tried to stop the revolution--the army--and then all the issues with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Indeed, the film follows the Egyptian uprising in Tahrir Square in what is a three-act structure of sorts, from the resignation of Hosni Mubarak in early ’11 to the army’s subsequent power grab to the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi taking office as president in June.

It is a story told from the ground up--through the eyes of several liberal revolutionaries and one dissident member of the Brotherhood, and particularly through actor Khalid Abdalla, the charismatic Cairo-based star of Hollywood films such as “The Kite Runner” and “Green Zone.” Abdalla is seen putting his life on hold to fight the military in the streets and on the Web. (Noujaim does not appear in the movie, preferring to let her subjects take center stage.)

As filmed by Noujaim and her crew, the activity in Tahrir over the last two years will remind some of the Occupy movement, though with potentially higher and certainly far bloodier stakes.

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“One of the things we wanted to show is that people are willing to give up everything--jobs, school--and get a different kind of education in the square,” Karim Amer, the film’s producer, said as he sat next to Noujaim during the interview. “And it’s a huge education: you learn law to know your rights, you learn history not to repeat the mistakes of past revolutions, and unfortunately you learn medicine because of all the violence and death.”


In an industry where words like “brave” are freely tossed around, “The Square” soberly redefines the term. The movie also, it should be said, bolsters the claim that, as international media bureaus are shrinking, local documentarians with handheld cameras are filling the void.

Among the journalistically resonant scenes in “The Square,” which is seeking U.S. distribution: up-close shots of army officers violently clearing out protesters, a popular revolutionary singer badly tortured by the army, and a thug dragging a beaten protester through the streets. (The last clip went viral, landing on numerous news programs and bringing attention to the plight of protesters.)

Though the stories in “The Square” are personal, the film tells a larger tale of a movement, slipping in instructive pieces of context about such subjects as the propagandistic state media, or about how, in the filmmakers’ view, the Muslim Brotherhood cut deals with the military, leading to reprisals against the revolutionaries.

“Making this movie has given me a sense of outrage,” Noujaim said. “Because if things like this happen to someone like me who has a voice, what’s happening to all the people who don’t?”

Born in Washington and raised in Egypt and Kuwait, Noujaim has spent most of the last two years in Cairo. For the Harvard-educated filmmaker and for Amer (like everyone else who worked on the film, they actually met in Tahrir during 2011 protests) the line between activism and filmmaking has been intentionally blurred.

“It’s a movement first and a film second, which is why we kept going back to the square even when it was dangerous or we already had a lot of footage,” Amer said.


The producer, who is also Egyptian-American, said he saw it as his responsibility to procure footage not just for this project but for citizen journalists covering the conflict on their social-media pages. At one point he and the others had become so established that wives and children of the disappeared were approaching the crew asking if they might be filmed, in the hope it would lead to the return of their loved ones.

Bodily harm wasn’t the only risk in the square. Cameras were regularly seized during the military’s sweeps. “I’ve gotten a lot less precious about my footage,” Noujaim said dryly. (The director and her crew have produced more than 1,000 hours of footage. They say they may make a second movie that examines the revolution through the eyes of the military and Brotherhood leaders, about whom Noujaim is of course abundantly skeptical.)

Those involved with the film know this story is pretty much the definition of the ongoing saga. “The revolution will come back,” one beaten-down revolutionary says stoically toward the end of the film, referring to resentment for the Muslim Brotherhood.

For her part, Noujaim said that, while she may have basically completed the film, the tale of the protesters continues to twist and turn. “We had to stop the film because we can’t just keep shooting,” Noujaim said. “But it’s a story that doesn’t really have an ending.”


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