‘The Square’ director: ‘It became about the fight against fascism’
One of the great challenges of making a documentary about current events is that the story continues after the cameras stop rolling. For documentarians, that means they need to make tough decisions about when to stop shooting — and in the case of Jehane Noujaim, when to keep going.
Noujaim’s new film “The Square,” a street-level view of the Egyptian uprising seen through the lens of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, is notable for its continued evolution. Even after the film won a top audience award at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Noujaim and her team continued shooting and debuted a whole new cut at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, where “The Square” won another audience prize.
Noujaim recently visited The Times to talk with film critic Kenneth Turan about “The Square,” which also made the Oscar shortlist for documentary features.
“I grew up about 10 minutes away from the square,” Noujaim said. “My family still lives there, and I’m Egyptian, so there was no place that I wanted to be more than in the middle of the square as the protest movement was happening.”
For the director, the film represents “a small piece of, I think, what everybody who went to that square felt: ‘I’m going to basically say what I want to, decide that I’m going to fight for the future of a country’ .… It was this incredibly beautiful atmosphere when I got there -- men and women, different classes, religious, secular, all fighting for the change that they wanted to see in the country.”
While the first cut of the film chronicled the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and the election of Mohamed Morsi, the story continued, with bloody crackdowns and a military coup. Noujaim and her team headed back into the field.
“The first sort of trajectory of the film, the film that we showed at Sundance, was basically the political trajectory, from the bringing down of a dictator to the election of a new president,” Noujaim said. “But, actually, two weeks before we left for Sundance, when we had closed the film, all of our characters were back in the streets because once again you had somebody using the tools of democracy to create another dictatorship. And it became a story about the fight against fascism, whether the face of that fascism was Mubarak or the military or the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The new cut of the film is “very different,” Noujaim said. One of the major changes was tightening the perspective from a few main characters to just one: Ahmed Hassan, a young protester.
“Capturing a people’s movement, it’s confusing a lot of times, and you’re often in moments when you’re not exactly sure what’s happening, and you do need somebody’s emotional experience to take you along.”
Although the situation on the ground is still fluid, “the film is finished,” Noujaim said. “We had to get to a point where we felt like the emotional journey of the characters had gone through a cycle, and they all came to a place where they realized that it wasn’t about the particular leader in power, but it was about the changing of a consciousness in a country. It’s about holding leaders accountable.”
For more from Noujaim and Turan, watch the full video above. “The Square” will play at the Palm Springs International Film Festival on Jan. 4, 5 and 12, and will open in theaters and on Netflix on Jan. 17.
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