By Heidi Simmons
As inexpensive video technology has become readily accessible around the world, cameras are now in the hands of many, changing how we view the world. For filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, her documentary, The Square, is a powerful experience she hopes will resonate globally.
Noujaim with the help of three others, filmed the Egyptian revolution as it began in Cairo’s, Tahrir Square. Her film follows several characters — real people — as they gather to fight for change. Their incredible bravery brings down the country’s long-standing dictator Hosni Mubarak. The film doesn’t stop there, but continues to follow the intense and deadly events that lead to successor Mohamed Morsi’s election as President through his subsequent arrest.
“It was a revolution that we were filming on the outside but it was also a revolution for all of us on the inside,” said Noujaim. “We learned so much from the people we followed. We learned fearlessness and courage. It’s a complete surrender and sacrificing of everything in your life because of the importance to sticking with one’s principles. All the characters come from different backgrounds, but they all had that conviction in common.”
Having participated in civil right marches in the US, Noujaim had her doubts about the success of protests in Egypt. “I thought the people would be chased out or imprisoned and wouldn’t come back again. But they did come back and people stayed,” said Noujaim. “To see it actually succeed. To see the leadership step down and other successes happen because of people’s pure determination and will and refusal to compromise on principal. It redefined possibilities for me. I was change on a very deep level.”
Born here in the US, Noujaim grew up in Cairo. Her mother is from Connecticut and Noujaim has a dual citizenship. She frequently travels back and forth between the US and Egypt. The Square is Noujaim’s second documentary film about the people of Egypt. She has a production office five minutes from Tahrir Square.
When Noujaim set out into Tahrir Square, with a consumer DSLR camera — the only legal video camera allowed — recording the events was a way to show the people of Egypt and the world what was happening on the ground. It also served as a way to record any actions against the protesters. Shortly, amazing characters presented themselves and captivating stories unfolded in front of her lens.
“The film came out of the square,” said Noujaim. “It was an incredible collaboration of talented people fighting for something much bigger than themselves.” Noujaim met Karim Amer in the square and he became the producer on the project. The director of photography and the sound guys were all protestors. Their footage has been used in court cases and on news stations when media agencies were not present.
“When I got there, I experienced a magical atmosphere,” said Noujaim. “Imagine living in a country where for 30 years you were under emergency law and you couldn’t speak openly about political beliefs or your hopes for the future. For the first time, people who had never spoken to each other before — men, women, different classes, religious, secular — were all speaking about their dreams for the future. People loved each other and took care of each other without even knowing them. And that’s what happens when you are in a situation where people are being killed next to you for no reason. I immediately wanted to share it with the world.”
Noujaim knew the best way to share such a story with a wide audience, who may know nothing about Egypt or the Middle East, was to tell a deeply personal story about compelling characters. Some of the characters in the documentary Noujaim knew and others she met sleeping next to her in the square. She found people who would take her to places that she would never have ordinarily experienced.
The Square is an intimate, incredible and intense journey that puts the viewer directly in the midst of a significant shift in history. Noujaim and Amer attended the Palm Springs International Film Festival to help promote the film and talk about their experiences. Both speak passionately about Egypt and the significance the revolution has on all people who value human rights and civil liberties. The Square made the Best of Fest screening list. The documentary is powerful, poignant, emotional and meaningful. Noujaim wants people who see the film to be empowered to fight for what they believe in to generate change.
Eventually shooting over 1,600 hours of footage, they started filming January of 2011 and completed July 2013. Through the revolution and the changes in leadership, Noujaim and her team took a year and half to edit voluminous footage into the 99-minute documentary.
This week, Egyptians will vote on a new constitution. The Square is currently banned in Egypt. It is the hope of Noujaim and Amer that the international attention of their movie will generate the films’ release in Egypt. The Square will be on Netflix January 17 and in theaters the 19th.