Jehane Noujaim thinks big. Like many documentary filmmakers, she believes that a movie can change the world, but—like the best of directors—she does not allow politics to get in the way of a good story. And considering how political her latest film is, this is quite a feat. The Square (nominated for an Oscar this year) was released on Netflix on January 17, right around the three year anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, which began as a protest movement in downtown Cairo. Noujaim, whose previous films include Startup.com and Control Room is not someone who simply captured the revolution on film; she experienced it for herself, live, in Tahrir Square. And that energy pulsates through the powerful, often heartbreaking footage.
Gil Scott-Heron had it right—the revolution will not be televised, and according to Noujaim it will not be documented either. The brilliant director spoke with Paste about her latest effort and offered some surprising insight about the project. Although many will say that The Square documents the Egyptian revolution, Noujaim herself describes it as a character-driven story concerned with the “emotional journey” of the people, the revolutionaries, and the friendships that were able to survive, against all political odds.
You started out working on MTV and obviously you’ve come a long way since then. How might The Square reflect your own personal journey as a filmmaker?
Noujaim: Oh, that’s a big question! (laughs) I think that so much of my work over the past 15 years comes together in The Square. At MTV, I worked on a fantastic show called Unfiltered which I call the pre-YouTube YouTube. We sent out cameras to kids or audience members, and we would coach them to tell their story, and then we would edit their footage. A piece of that entered into the filming of The Square because a couple of our characters had cameras. And Ahmed learned how to use a camera during the shooting of the film, and actually filmed some of the most incredible footage of the film.
After cutting together a lot of shaky footage for MTV, I was really yearning to get a camera into my hands again. I was lucky enough to meet Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker who are legends of documentary film. I was working on a film called Startup.com and at the same time they were working on a film about the dot-com bubble but from the funding side. And we partnered and made this film together which taught me so much. There’s so much about filmmaking that you can only learn once you start doing it. And Pennebaker and Chris make character-driven films. Pennebaker told me that you follow the characters who excite you and inspire you—those who don’t bore you! It’s pretty simple instruction—you stop if you get bored and you stick to your characters like glue.
That experience of making Startup.com—and really telling this emotional story that was less about the websites they were creating and more about a deeply personal story of friendship and business—came into play with The Square. The Square is about these revolutionaries and their fight for change more than it was about a general overview of the revolution from a political perspective.
And after Startup.com you went on to make Control Room, right?
Noujaim: Yes, this was the first time I was really dealing with a story that was personal for me. It was about me being someone who was an American, and growing up between Egypt and the U.S. I often saw the news in these different places and how vastly different the coverage was. Most of the time, the most important stories that took place in the Middle East were left out of the coverage in the West and vice-versa. I was wondering about how it was even possible for people to communicate with each other when their understanding of the world around them was so different.
The film ended up really busting apart stereotypes, and when I got to Tahrir Square I met people who challenged my stereotypes even as an Egyptian. I saw this critical moment where people of different classes—men, women, religious, secular—were coming together with a different vision of Egypt. There was a new feeling of being able to change your future. It was a moment that I think everyone in that Square didn’t want to die, so we tried to capture it in the film so that it wouldn’t.
Some people may not have seen it this way, but I felt like there were all of these comical moments throughout the film. And I saw your interview with Jon Stewart—he was poking fun at some things and you had such a great sense of humor about it all. Is it important for you to have those comedic moments when you’re doing something like this?
Noujaim: (laughs) Ha! There’s a lot of comedy in the film. Maybe you have a little Egyptian blood in you because my mother showed it at the center where she works and she said people were laughing throughout the whole film.
This is also a defense mechanism. When you’ve lived through such difficulty and poverty, the only thing that you can do sometimes is laugh. Egyptians are actually known for having an incredible sense of humor, and a lot of the film’s jokes came out of that. So I love that you saw humor in it. When you’re making a film about something like revolution and change, a film where people are being killed or hurt, to be able to have moments of levity where people are able to joke with one another is so important.
That scene at the end where Ahmed says to Magdy, “I’m coming to your sit-in, and if I die I’ll just blame you”! That was a great moment, and there were so many more like that. There’s only so much you can show in a 90-minute film, but since it’s coming to Netflix we’re hoping to be able to upload some of the funnier footage.
There’s also a lot of great artwork in the film.
Noujaim: Yes, I love that you’re asking about the graffiti. Karim [Amer] our producer is into design … and we decided that the film desperately needed its breathing moments. Because graffiti truly exploded on the streets in downtown Cairo during the revolution, we decided that would be the ideal way to make these breathing moments and to tell the story at the same time. Abo Bakr, who is the graffiti artist, is actually an art teacher. He always jokes and says that we’ve been writing on walls for 5,000 years.
It’s amazing that the film is getting a lot of support, but I’m curious about American support for the movement and for the revolution. Do you find that we’re willing to talk about our entire role in the situation, including the support of former President Mubarak when he was in office? Is this an important part of the conversation for you?
Noujaim: Absolutely. We had to make choices when making the film, and there are a couple of mentions of the American support of Mubarak and his military. Ahmed said it best actually. During an interview he stopped and said, “Well I have a question for you. The U.S. has said that they support Mubarak, then they were supporters of the protesters, but they were also supporters of the military! I just want to understand who is the U.S. with?!” I think that’s the feeling the general population has of America—a wish that there was more of a consistency with their support, rather than just picking a winner or a loser.
One conversation that is really crucial involves thinking about what “aid” means. Does aid always have to be pay for the military and for military equipment? What about aid that goes towards education and building schools? In fact, this conversation about aid needs to be had across the world.
In the film Khaleed [Abdalla] says that it will take years to know if the revolution has worked. But you and Ahmed [Hassan] have both said that a consciousness has changed in Egypt and a culture of protest has been born. Is that enough for you? Are you satisfied with the current outcome as it stands?
Noujaim:I don’t think I could ever be satisfied. I think that’s the role of filmmakers and of people who are protesting—to always keep questioning. I do think that there has been some really important change. If you just look at the outcome of the revolution from a political perspective, you could say, “Oh God, have we gone backwards?” But this revolution happened not only on a political level, but also on a cultural level, where people really felt like the creation of a culture of protesting was happening. This is a huge change—a change in consequence, too. There was a time where if you had said, “Don’t you think it’s wrong that someone was thrown in prison and tortured and we don’t know the reason why?” many people would have shaken their heads and said, “That’s the way it is, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” I think it would be difficult to find that person now.
And then, on the other hand, I have a friend who was part of a group of people that was arrested and she is in prison as we speak. That’s completely unacceptable. So we continue to push and continue to fight for change.
Thank you for your time!