‘The Square’ is the rare, up-to-the-moment documentary

It’s hard enough making one movie from the belly of a revolution. But two?

“I’m not sure we would recommend doing it this way,” Jehane Noujaim, director of the new Egyptian-uprising documentary, “The Square,” says dryly.

After filming anti-Hosni Mubarak democracy protesters in Cairo from early 2011 through the election of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in mid-2012, Noujaim and producer Karim Amer premiered “The Square” at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won a top audience prize.

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But just weeks later, the Egyptian-American filmmakers were back in Cairo, risking their lives anew to record bloody crackdowns and a military coup. The additional footage soon morphed into a brand-new version of the film.


“We weren’t really sure we could continue after we finished the first time,” Noujaim says. “But the story kept going, so we did too.”

In doing so, the pair has shown both the fluid nature of the Egyptian crisis and modern documentary film’s surprising ability to keep up. The new version of “The Square” — playing at L.A.'s Sundance Cinemas — contains about 75% footage not seen in the original. It documents, largely from the revolution’s ground zero of Tahrir Square, the coup that overthrew Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood this summer. The movie also finds new characters to give shape to what had been an urgent but more formless verite exercise.

The result is a film broad in scope but up-to-the-minute in timing, a tale equally of failure and resilience as one of the world’s most politically complex countries moves fitfully and not always successfully toward democracy. Viewers at the Toronto International Film Festival in September gave the new cut their own audience prize, critics have extolled the film and it’s become a front-runner in the Academy Awards’ documentary category.

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Executives at Netflix agreed with the plaudits — the company two weeks ago made “The Square” its first acquisition of an ambitious documentary slate and aims for a big marketing push when the film becomes available on its service this winter.

To follow the high arc — from the optimism of the early days of Mubarak’s overthrow to the messy business of erecting a sustainable democracy — “The Square” focuses on the revolution’s citizen activists.

Ahmed Hassan is a young protester with a warm face who makes a sympathetic entry point for audiences, displaying both idealism and dashed dreams.

Perhaps more complicated is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Brotherhoo who believes in the revolution and its ideals and finds his identity riven by recent events.

And there’s British Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, star of Hollywood films such as “The Kite Runner,” who returned to Cairo from London shortly after the revolution began to pick up where his father, a jailed activist from the ‘70s, left off.

Western audiences will be struck by how bleak things have turned in the country; the new footage offers an up-close look at a Brotherhood that consolidated power and far overstepped its electoral mandate. Meanwhile, it portrays the army — the other force in Egypt’s power-politic dynamic — brutalizing Brotherhood members in a way that will shock those accustomed to the distancing effect of newspaper accounts.

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But despite the violence, those involved in the revolution say many of these events give them hope.

“What the coup this summer proved is that we [activists] didn’t just overthrow a government once,” says Abdalla. “We’re able to do it whenever we feel power is being corrupted. There is optimism. What happened in 2011 was not an exception.”

Abdalla is talking about the film over lunch in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant with Noujaim and Amer, the trio at the moment a world away from the chaos they chronicle. All three--as well as other crew members and subjects--didn’t know each other before the film; they met in Tahrir Square, their very collaboration proving the group’s united-we-stand point.

At the beginning, a film was hardly on their minds.

Noujaim, 39, arrived in Egypt from London at the start of the revolution in 2011. Having directed several well-regarded documentaries — including 2004’s Al-Jazeera examination “Control Room” — the Harvard-educated director and former MTV News producer aimed to go briefly to Cairo, in part to participate in then-nascent protests.

She assured her then-boyfriend in England that she would avoid legal trouble — and was promptly arrested in a police sweep. “Well, I knew who I couldn’t call,” she says wryly.

Amer was an unlikely activist or filmmaker. After working for years as a designer in Cairo, Amer, who grew up on the U.S. East Coast, said he wasn’t looking to get involved. “I remember sitting in a restaurant right near Tahrir before January 2011 and telling a friend I wouldn’t be going out there,” he says. “And she said, ‘This is what you’ve always talked about, what you’ve always been waiting for. You have to go.’ ” (Amer adds that in high school he was often assigned projects about the black power movement and other revolutionary groups because of his dark complexion and Other status.)

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Soon after he and Noujaim met, they began assembling a team of activists who could join them in shooting and editing material from Tahrir. Noujaim, who says her mother tells her she lacks the “fear gene,” was often pressing forward when police and army told protesters to get back. That resulted in rare footage (and a few broken cameras), as well as an arrest that had her shuttled between prisons for several days.

Though the movie’s methodology blurs the line between interested activism and dispassionate journalism, Noujaim and Amer say that to separate the two in the movie would have been to do the film a disservice. One of their objectives, they say, is to show that activists are made, not born.

“I know it sounds obvious, but it’s true. Martin Luther King was just a regular guy once,” Amer says. “He didn’t think of himself as ‘Martin Luther King.’ ” It’s also, he adds, why the movie contains mostly ordinary people and grass-roots leaders, not professional politicians.

“The Square” is as adept at showing the divisions within the democracy movement between leaders and revolutionaries. In one pointed moment, young women question Brotherhood activists, asking them why they speak frankly of theocracy in the provinces but tone down their rhetoric in Cairo; it’s a scene that evokes the U.S.'s red- and blue-state divide and the politicking that often goes with it.

The filmmaker’s lives are on the road now — they’d been shuttling among Toronto, New York and L.A. over the past weeks to promote the movie as it plays festivals and hits theaters. The story in Egypt, meanwhile, of course continues as the army sorts out its new role and aims — activists hope — to transition from the temporary rule of interim President Adly Mansour to a permanent elected government.

As for the filmmakers, “we’re done shooting. Definitely,” Amer says.

But then Noujaim adds, “We have a lot of footage from many of the candidates who ran for president. There may be a movie in that.”
So they’re not really done?

She offers a small smile. “I guess not.”