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Meet the Oscar-Nominated Filmmakers: Jehane Noujaim, Director, 'The Square'

By Tom White

Synopsis: The Egyptian Revolution has been an ongoing rollercoaster over the past two-and-a-half years. Through the news, we only get a glimpse of the bloodiest battle, an election or a million-man march. At the beginning of July 2013, we witnessed the second president deposed within the space of three years.

The Square is an immersive experience, transporting the viewer deeply into the intense emotional drama and personal stories behind the news. It is the inspirational story of young people claiming their rights, struggling through multiple forces, in the fight to create a society of conscience.

We spoke to director Jehane Noujaim via email about the making of her Academy Award-nominated documentary feature, The Square.


A young man sits on someone's shoulder, smiling, with his finger raised
From 'The Square'

Documentary:  I saw both versions of The Square—the work-in-progress at Sundance and the final version that premiered at Toronto. My impression of both versions was this: The Sundance premiere provided a riveting, up-to-the-minute story of a revolution-in-progress, with a compelling, engaging and compassionate cast of characters leading us through a ground-level experience. The Toronto premiere, it seemed to me, not only documented an ongoing narrative, but deepened the story, taking the longer view of what a revolution is, in all of its complexities, challenges and struggles—not just this one, but  revolutions and uprisings in recent history. Besides the obvious need to return to and document an ongoing story, what are the key distinctions for you between the two versions?

Jehane Noujaim: The first version was much more focused on the historical timeline, while the second is focused primarily on the character experience within that timeline. In the end, the human story is lasting; events will come and go. The use of music and sound was also a distinction between the two versions because we had more opportunities to use sound and music to enhance the film in the second version. One of the biggest distinctions is our use of Ahmed's voice as the anchor or narrator of the second version.  

D: Along those lines, it's always a challenge for any vérité documentarian to gauge when it's time to transition from production to post-production. What were the key determinants for you in assessing that you had a story, even though the story was still unfolding?

JN: We focused on the human story and the journey of our characters and their actions and experiences. A key moment was when, less than three weeks after Mubarak resigned, we saw Ramy [one of the characters in the film] go from being hailed as a hero to being captured and tortured, and no one was reporting it. That's when we knew there were two narratives: one of what was happening on the ground vs. what was being reported. We saw that our characters had gone through an awakening after living in silence under Mubarak for several decades, they witnessed the beauty of revolution, and then saw that get taken from them by the military. It was when the characters saw that the person they elected was beginning to use the tools of democracy to create a dictatorship that they realized they were looking not just for a leader, but for a conscience. They reached a point in the arc when they realized that change does not come overnight, but from a graduated, concerted effort over time.  

A man holds a guitar and sits on the ground as a woman sits next to him and looks over, clapping
From 'The Square'

D: Another challenge is capturing a historic event, and then making what you capture a lasting document that future generations will reference. Talk about the process in the editing room for making this happen.

JN: We had shot over 1,600 hours of material, so there was a lot to go through. We wanted to focus on the strongest moments for the characters and show how their experiences were intersecting with the historical/political timeline. We also wanted to strike a balance between the character moments and the plot-point moments in the historic timeline that would make sense in terms of the broader narrative.

D: Netflix came on board as an online distributor, and Gathr Films is also a partner in the theatrical process. Both embrace a new means of reaching audiences—Netflix in its post-House of Cards manifestation, is adding more documentaries to its docket and promoting them aggressively, while Gathr empowers movie-lovers to bring films to their neighborhoods. How are these models playing out for you?

JN: They are great. We wanted to go with a platform that would be most accessible to the widest audience possible, and we have been very happy with the partnership.

D: Although The Square has still not been officially screened in Egypt, a number of Egyptians have seen it and have strong opinions about it, according to a recent article in The New York Times. What are your goals for the film now, and for the future?

JN: The reaction from Egypt has been overwhelmingly positive, moving, heart-wrenching, and is the fuel that has kept us going. We have young people saying that it has reminded them of all of the ideals of freedom and civil rights, and everything they initially went down to Tahrir Square to fight for. It reminds them that the fight continues. The international attention from the academy nomination has, as Ahmed said, made this film unstoppable in Egypt. We are still going through the process of censorship, and we believe that because of the power of international witness and support, the authorities might give us permission to release it legally and broadly across Egypt. This will be a major step in the direction toward support of freedom of speech in Egypt because it will be the first time the government allows a piece of work to exist, whether or not they agree or disagree with what it says. In those moments of darkness when people are being assailed for tweets and journalism, there is no more crucial time than now to fight for those basic human rights. 

A young man wearing a black and white scarf stands in a crowd at night, looking in the distance
From 'The Square'

The Square will be screening on as part of IDA's annual DocuDay, Saturday, March 1, at 5:00 p.m. at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.

Thomas White is editor of Documentary magazine.