Director's Cut: Jehane Noujaim ('The Square')

The Square

To say that Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square” is a film that speaks for itself would be a gross understatement. This extraordinary documentary gives voice to Egypt’s revolutionaries and by following a small handful of activists through two and a half years of protest, finds a way to speak for a much wider, global community of resistance. Which, of course, makes the opportunity to talk to Noujaim herself all the more intriguing.

How does one take a collective revolution, boil it down to 100 or so minutes, and at the same time do justice to its plural and collective values? How does one shoot such a thing in the first place, making sure that all of the necessary pieces can be found in a sea of images, taken from perhaps the most significant political event of the digital age? Is it a project that will need to be continued, added to as Egypt continues to evolve? Revolutions don’t simply end, as Noujaim and her crew learned when they returned to Cairo after their Sundance debut to film the toppling of President Morsi last summer.

We talked to Noujaim about all of these questions, as well as the more technical issues of archiving the video and the sometimes surreal experience of campaigning for an Oscar.

FILM.COM: How much total footage did you have at the end of the production process?

JEHANE NOUJAIM: About 1600 hours. But you have to understand that also we had anywhere up to five cameras shooting during the past two and a half years. I was probably the most character focused of all of the people shooting, but sometimes when we were shooting in Tahrir Square there would be no characters there. Yet we were the only camera in the square and people would say "You can't leave because you're the witness of what's happening. If there's an attack or if anything happens then you have to shoot it.” So there's a lot of footage that's not following a character storyline that was used. Much of it has been used by news stations, uploaded online, used by Mosireen (the internet site that Khalid creates) and also used as evidence in court cases. Is there a plan to more thoroughly archive that?

Noujaim: Yes. We are looking into that now, actually. We're talking to different people about the most sophisticated archiving mechanisms because there are pieces to be made from this footage, there's a lot of people who are curious about the topic and about change. Imagine if you had the record in the United States, on the ground, of a lot of the civil rights movement. We feel that's what we've captured in Egypt and we want people to have access to it. We want it to be used in the future. Would you ever make another film from it?

Noujaim: Possibly. We definitely want to do a film where we go more deeply into the lives of a couple of the female characters. Ragia Omran - we feel like there's a very important film to be made following her. Ragia is basically our Erin Brockovich. She spends her time in police stations and in prisons getting people out. She's on the forefront of change because she is the human rights lawyer that stands between a corrupt system and the revolutionaries. She works pro bono and she's tireless. When I was arrested she got me out but she got 300 other people out at the same time. I was in prison for two days, got out at around 3 o'clock in the morning. She stayed until 7 o'clock in the morning because she was trying to get two minors out and she had to wait to get their parents to come to the prison. She couldn't get in touch with them because they didn't have phones. So she had to send people to these villages to their houses to bring their parents over. And why was it important that she stand there? She said that the police will just tell them that these kids were arrested for throwing molotov cocktails and setting fire to police cars. That's what I was accused of. So the parents will basically beat the kids up and never let them go down to protest again. She said “Person by person, I'm changing the country.”

She wasn't included as much in the film as we wanted because in the end we had to make this choice. The film is called "The Square." It's about the use of the square as a tool for change. We wanted it to be about this because this is really the Zeitgeist of our time. There's a reason the squares in Greece and Brazil and Turkey are being used for change. These guys were the three characters that really stuck with that. Whereas Ragia was in the police stations with Bothaina Kamil, who decides she's going to be the first woman to run for president. There are a lot of side stories where we can update the film, upload pieces for people who want to delve deeper into what else was actually happening. Did you see the “99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film”?

Noujaim: I'm really dying to see it, I haven't seen it yet. There are a few films that I really should have seen and that's one of them. The thing that that film does is that instead of just following a small group of characters, it does kind of the opposite.

Noujaim: It's like short stories, right? Yeah and they really ran with the collaborative thing, in a different direction. It looks at much more of the context and tells a sort of historical narrative as opposed to a personal narrative of what happened. I wonder whether at any point when looking at the footage you thought it would be better to go in that direction and to look at context and causes?

Noujaim: That's a very good question, that really gets at the long editing process that this film went through. Initially, this film was very influenced by the ideas of the revolution itself. This was a leaderless revolution. You had many people saying "Well why are you choosing three characters to tell this story? This is a collaborative uprising and the film should reflect that." We actually tried and got to a cut that really did follow multiple characters, maybe eight. You were taken on this ride of the events and the square was a main character.

And I didn't deeply connect to the film. I thought there was something interesting about it but it was something that I felt would only appeal to people that were curious about specifics on the ground of how the revolution came about. I didn't feel it was going to pierce people's hearts, people who didn't really care about Egypt or the Occupy movement. That's what I really hoped to do with the film. I felt that we really needed to get deeply emotional and into the characters' journey in order to have resonance on a wider scale. The way that you talk about it almost sounds more like you're writing a novel than making an informative idea of a documentary. The film strikes me as literature in a lot of ways.

Noujaim: That's what we hoped for. We really wanted to reach people that were outside of the people that were already interested in this topic. I wonder what you think of as your role as the author of the film when the footage collecting is collective and you want it to fit into the ideas of the revolution. Did you think about taking the authorship of the film in a more collective direction?

Noujaim: For sure. But it's easier to shoot a film collectively than it is to edit a film collectively. You can shoot endless footage but you can't have an endless film. In the end, it was four main people shooting this film, and we had some additional photography done by another four people. I've made these films following character before, I know that it's crucial to follow characters and really try to stick to them like glue. I made my first film with D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus and I have great admiration for their work. That's the way I learned to do it and it worked, so I haven't changed that.

I tried to do that with our filmmaking team. We had an experienced DP on the crew but no one else on the crew had made a film before. My advice to them - because it's revolution and I won't say instruction because nobody was really being told what to do - but my advice was to stick to your character like glue. Hamdi filmed a lot of Ahmed. I filmed a lot of the stories with all of the different characters. Khalid's girlfriend wanted to get involved in filmmaking and I said "if you want to follow your boyfriend that would be awesome, because it's going to give an intimacy to the film which we don't get being in the square."

And you don't get a lot of reflection being in the square because everything is so immediate and decisions are being made on the spot. A lot of the reflection you get in the houses outside of the square. Cressida films beautifully and she started following her boyfriend who then became her husband. I don't know whether he knew he would be waking up to a camera for the next two and a half years. It worked out. She filmed a lot of Magdy as well, and Ragia. Ahmed learned how to use the camera midway through the film, and he ended up shooting a lot of the stuff on the front lines.

It was a collaborative approach but there was also a lot of conversation happening as we did it. There was a lot of "you're following this person, I'm following this person, let's make sure that we balance." It was a constant balance between the characters' emotional lives and what was happening in the square. The parts that end up in the film are really the intersection of big changes in the square and big moments in these people's lives. But the minute that we found ourselves going home with them, the film went off on a tangent that became very difficult to pull back from.

So that's how we shot it. We were editing five minutes away from the square in a big office, an amazing, old downtown apartment in Cairo where a lot of the people in the revolution would come crash. There was initially a lot of "If you remove this scene you're going to destroy the narrative of the revolution!" We edited there in that space, very intensely until we got to a Sundance cut. We actually went to the UK for three or four months and then went back to Egypt. It was initially a very collaborative approach but to get to our final cut we actually had to come to Los Angeles - it didn't have to be Los Angeles - it was myself working with Pedro, two other assistant editors. We were looking at the footage and not being influenced by the continual changing events.

Well, that's not to say we weren't being influenced by continual changing events because we were but... Down the street, so-and-so has been arrested and this is happening now and different things were happening every day. It becomes very difficult to pull yourself back from that and say "I'm not a news station, I'm trying to make a human story to be able to give a perspective and a deep look at what's happened over the past 2 and a half years."

the-square_1311044_616 Do you go back? Not so much in the way that the "Up" series goes back to the same characters every few years. At one point in the film it comes up that revolution isn't really a thing that ends, and it certainly isn't over now. Do you go back and keep making films with the explicit purpose of chronicling the revolution?

I think that what's exciting about what we're doing is that we have this film, which is a building block, which will be released widely on Netflix. We chose Netflix because we thought it would reach the widest and most diverse audience possible. Ahmed has continued to film, we have a lot of footage in the archive, there's a great curiosity in both Egypt and here. There's potential through our Facebook page, possibly through Netflix to be able to continually update with the purpose of continuing the conversation and continuing the debate and the questioning of what's going on, on the ground. And the way that we can do that now is different from how we could do that before. It's not like we have a "Battle of Algiers 2".

Noujaim: This is the civil rights movement of our time. There are going to be a lot of films and books that will talk about what this period of time meant, but we're never going to be able to be in it again. I think that what vérité and observational filmmaking does, which is what I was so attracted to when I worked with Pennebaker and Chris. I was making “” with them and I would escape the editing and go downstairs and go through all their movies from the 60s and feel like I was in the back of a car with Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. No narration, no one telling me what to think, no Voice of God telling me what was going on and it's the closest thing you get to time travel. That's what we hoped to create with this film. It gets closer to truth that way, I think. In a way that is understandable to people.

Noujaim: Yeah, and truth is a funny word. But the reason why I actually do agree with you is because of how interesting it is to watch “Control Room” or “” or different films that I've made in a vérité way, and Pennebaker's films. You bring something different to it each time. The film over the years actually changes. You see different things. With a narrated film you're being told something, and your perspective on what you're being told can change. But in an observational film, the breadth of what you can see in something is even larger. Congratulations on the shortlist, by the way.

Noujaim: Thank you, we're really thrilled. I wonder if you've seen Sebastian Junger's film on Tim Hetherington.

Noujaim: I did, yeah. In the film there's this confusing negotiation between things happening in the world and being involved in an Oscar race. I'm wondering how you feel about that dichotomy as a filmmaker.

Noujaim: I'll tell you, I found that film very emotional. I met Tim a few times, and I know Sebastian. Sebastian actually carried our tape to Sundance for us at the last minute. And Tim's parents gave us the first Tim Hetherington Award for The Square. The film I found very moving.

But I know exactly what you're talking about. I would feel more torn about it except for the fact that I spoke to Ahmed when we got to the shortlist and he said "I just want to tell you, what you guys are doing is so important because it's all reaching Egypt. When we made that list I just wanted to run in the street and scream and yell because nobody will be able to squash our story. Nobody will be able to obliterate what we're fighting for now."

It's not about the red carpet. I've never gone for this award before in any of my films because it's a long process, it's expensive, it takes a lot of time. You have to do a lot of screenings. Many people have told me this. But after long talks with people in the film, on the ground, it really is an award that can elevate your film to a level of international recognition and discussion that puts what these kids on the street are fighting for in Egypt, and in the Arab World, on a whole other level. It's paid attention to by the military, by the brotherhood, by the powers that be. It gives the narrative a legitimacy. It makes it impossible to ignore, and that's what Ahmed's message was.

In the end of my film “Control Room” it says "History is written by the victors." Now the brotherhood have been victorious and they've had their narrative written all over the place. The army has been victorious and they've had their narrative written all over the place. Let us go for the Oscar and get the narrative of the disorganized social movements an international level. Khalid says in the film, “This is not a battle of rocks and stones, this is a battle of narratives.”

What this whole revolution and this fight was about, and what kids are fighting over in all of these squares around the world, is a change in their relationship with government. What was happening in Cairo was the attempt to bring down and have an alternative to these binaries. “Your choice is only the Brotherhood or the army.” No, the binaries that exist are actually organized fascist movements versus disorganized social movements. The more platform and voice we can give to these disorganized social movements, I feel the more power we will give to them. And that's what I hope this film can do.

"The Square" opens in theaters and on Netflix Instant on Friday, January 17th.