Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim’s brilliant new documentary, The Square, charts the Egyptian revolution’s initial spasms in 2011, but more so the excruciating growth of the country’s tortured body politic in the years since. Noujaim and her crew—who were as much participants in the action as witnesses, having been arrested multiple times—craft their narrative around three very different Egyptians: the young, wisecracking secularist Ahmed Hassan, the Muslim Brotherhood supporter (and family man) Magdy Ashour, and U.K.-raised Kite Runner star Khalid Abdalla. The Square interrogates Tahrir’s ability to turn strangers into allies (and friends) even as the power structure tears ever-further between militarism and Islam. Using fluid, almost hallucinatory tilt-shift camerawork to cushion her characters against unpredictable and often violent rallies, Noujaim is neither self-congratulatory about the revolution nor entirely pessimistic. The result is a forlorn, harrowing study of dissent sure to be intensely revisited in years to come. I was honored to meet with Noujaim and executive producer Karim Amer ahead of the film’s New York release on October 25th.
Can you talk a little bit about the look of the film? What’s it like trying to construct cinematic images while you’re also in Tahrir Square, running for your life?
Jehane Noujaim: So the DSLR was a necessity because our cameras would have gotten confiscated if they weren’t the Canon cameras. DSLRs weren’t getting confiscated, because the police and the army thought they were just for taking still photographs. At a certain point—maybe six months in?—they finally started confiscating them. And then we met Muhammad Hamdy in the square.
Karim Amer: He’s our DP.
JN: The entire team first met in the square, actually.
KA: So he taught all of us how to use these cameras, and a lot of people had never used them before. The tilt-shift is his signature. He uses architectural lenses, not traditional film lenses. That’s where you get the feeling of the background around the characters being as zoomed-in as it is.
The Square premiered at Sundance in January, but the version being released on October 25th runs as late in its chronology as August 2013. At what point can you say you’ve conclusively finished a film like this? Or are you still planning on further edits?
JN: The first time we allowed it to “end” was when a president was elected. That’s the political ending, right? But it’s not the emotional ending. The characters still wanted to change the system, still wanted to change the people on the ground, and how they were fighting for change. So as we were on the way to Sundance, two weeks before we left Cairo, there were massive demonstrations in the streets. All of our “characters” were back in the streets, basically, because Morsi had started to take dictatorial powers. And so we watched this happening and said, there’s no way this could end, it’s a much more interesting, much deeper story. And it’s what this film is actually about: the fight against oppression and fascism, whatever face it may take. Whether it’s Mubarak, or the military, or the Muslim Brotherhood. Before we went to Sundance, we had an office continuing to film, and we knew we would be back editing again.
How important was Magdy’s character at that point? Was his role expanded given the different crackdowns?
JN: He had a large role during the entire filming process, because he’s the example of…he’s a foot soldier of the Muslim Brotherhood. He’s been loyal to them for 25 years. And his story was very interesting to watch; you could see how even though he had loyalties to them, he felt these loyalties were more religious. What he felt politically was much more in line with the protesters. He gained great friendships in the square, and he became quite torn, especially when his son went and was a much more loyal Brotherhood than even he is.
KA: His son was in the Brotherhood cadres, who were sent in as people were protesting against Morsi. He was in one of the groups that went in to destroy the tents where protesters camped out, kind of attacked people, and so Magdy was shocked. You know, it’s like the roles had been reversed. They had gone from the oppressed to becoming oppressors. I think it made him very disillusioned.
As a character, Magdy is a torn person, you know, and I think that’s what makes him very interesting for most audiences. We’ve gotten really interesting reactions; just the other day, there was a prominent LGBT activist who said, “I thought I was gonna hate Magdy. I really liked him as a person. I felt his conflict more than anything else.” And that person was from a Mormon background. So in the end I think that it’s Jehane’s decision to follow characters, even though it’s difficult to get swept into events, to stick with those characters over the course of two years. It was a really challenging task but we had a great team that came together, believed in her vision.
The movie hits its stride, emotionally, surrounding Magdy and Ahmed’s friendship, and how it gets challenged; Ahmed is crushed at the idea of a Brotherhood government. When you’re documenting two people who disagree like that, how do you keep them “honest”?
JN: Well, I’ve dealt with this actually in Startup.com, where two guys are on opposite sides of a business deal. It’s the same thing each time you tell the story; it’s basically that you follow the emotional ups and downs of that character and you try to be as true to their experience as you can be. You stay close to them, you spend as much time as you can with them, and often times we would have a camera following each.
Shooters following specific people, regardless of what happens.
KA: Yeah. The friendships that grow between the team and the characters is what allows you that kind of intimate access.
JN: The trust is the most important thing. When you slept next to somebody in the square, and followed them through battles, and risked your own life—with Magdy we were arrested together, and spent eight hours in a big truck where he basically sang songs to me to get me through it. You develop a friendship with somebody, and a trust with somebody, that’s very important to telling a story like this.
KA: Their friendship is represented as kind of how the philosophical coming together that the country felt in the beginning, and the crumbling of that, and the return to it on a human level. That’s what they attempt to do, regardless of the kind of political factions.
They have a kind of rapprochement.
KA: Yeah, but in the end, I think what Ahmed’s trying to get at is, despite the country being torn by different sides, they are representative of the same thing. Which is the people. And that it’s the human identity that’s going to persevere. And the political identities that are still developing; they’re not going to necessarily lead the way. So in the end any political identity that tries to overcome the will of the people, control the stakes in Egypt, has fallen. I think that’s what Ahmed feels, Magdy feels. That’s the thread that unites their group together.
President Mubarak appears only on screen briefly. It appears that you pointed the camera at a television, and then it happens with Morsi and then finally for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, for General Sisi. All these leaders are probably in the movie for about 10 cumulative minutes.
JN: That’s a choice. To make it from the perspective of the characters. Now, if I had gotten access inside Tora prison to follow Mubarak, that would be another film—and I wouldn’t say no! But with this film, and the same with Control Room, it was really from the perspective of the characters—what they’re seeing.
KA: Stylistically, it made a lot of sense to have these leaders represented that way, because that’s also how our characters see them. How the bulk of people see them, really. As these kind of figures that are distant, that are not accessible. I think that was one of the reasons why the film would work for us.