Jehane Noujaim’s The Square is a cinéma vérité-style documentary offering an electrifyingly intimate, character-driven perspective on Egypt’s political uprising and ensuing turmoil. It is also up for an Oscar on Sunday, but recent developments in the Ukraine have already offered a more concrete vindication of the film’s unswerving focus on the universal humanism of emancipatory struggles. Set against the increasingly nightmarish headlines emerging from Egypt’s authoritarian backslide, Noujaim’s project stands purposely athwart journalistic narratives and the perverse pessimism of the pundit class — a stance that has, among broadly positive reviews, earned the film some reprisal from journalists.
Max Fisher, writing in The Washington Post, called the documentary’s politics “dangerous,” arguing that the “one-sided narrative” resulted in a problematic depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood. But history’s course wends mostly in rear-view, and in this sense The Square is more than just a timely and moving documentary — it is an indispensable historicist study of a pivotal period. Hyperallergic recently sat down with the duo behind the film, director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer, to discuss the film’s position in the Egyptian political discourse, the theoretical framework of cinéma verité, and the broader question of artistic representations of human struggle.
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Mostafa Heddaya: Within a year of the [January 25] Tahrir Square uprising, there was a great deal of apprehension setting in regarding the revolution’s goals coming to fruition, even among the institutional figures in the fledgling secular left, which was ostensibly closest to the political ideals of the loose coalition of youth groups that catalyzed the uprising. How did your goals evolve from the film’s inception to its completion? Do you view the resulting piece as an archival document of this period, or something else entirely?
Jehane Noujaim: It’s definitely not an archival film, definitely not a journalistic account, definitely not a look at the political parties of any kind.
Our goal when we went there was to capture a glimpse of the emotions that were felt by a few individuals within the square, going in and out of the square.
It can be difficult sometimes for journalists to write about this: there is a big difference between writing a journalistic account and putting out an artistic piece of work. There is a confusion that happens between a documentary being a document. I don’t even call my films documentaries … The first films I made were with D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. Pennebaker is the grandfather of cinéma vérité — not journalistic accounts but character driven stories. You don’t have a voice of god, you don’t have a narrator, you’re not making a factual or journalistic account.
I grew up a few minutes from the square, a lot of us involved in the film have deep ties to what’s going on. We’re from a country that has been colonized by every entity that exists. As someone who has spent a lot of time in the United States and has seen the kind of portrayal of Arabs, the terrorist, the oppressed Arab woman, or whatever. The desire is to be able to say this was an Egyptian uprising where there were beautiful ideas about fighting for social justice and human rights, needs that every human being deserves. My desire was to make a film, like Pennebaker’s films, that came from inside the revolution.
We’ve had everyone write about us. What gets out to the outside world is not Egyptians themselves writing, or making films. By getting a camera into the hands of Ahmad, who shot a quarter of the film; giving Magdy a Flipcam, [and so on].
Karim Amer: And Khalid says it in the film, in the Cinema Tahrir scene, where they set up screens in the square: “Only we can tell our stories.” It’s the fight over who writes the narrative. In the Middle East, we come from a great tradition of storytelling, but you don’t always see that beyond the street level.
MH: And if I may push you on that point: on who gets to speak and why — how did you select the people you followed? There’s an interesting spectrum: a young, movie-star looking guy like Khalid with a posh British accent, and a middle-aged bearded Brotherhood family man like Magdy.
JN: In character-driven films we want to do the opposite of what journalists do. The leadership gets covered — when do you get to go deeply into the emotional world of an ordinary Egyptian citizen who is part of this struggle?
KA: It’s not just that. Different mediums in art give you different abilities. And film as a medium is perhaps the greatest medium for capturing emotion and for creating empathy through that emotion. And artists and filmmakers believe, our role is to capture emotion and inspire empathy from an audience, that’s the ultimate goal of a scene.
JN: Put people in the shoes of the people you are following.
KA: The way you do that is by connecting to characters emotionally. Difficult for people unfamiliar with cinéma vérité … there is no clear trajectory; you don’t know what’s going to happen next.
MH: But of course what separates cinéma vérité from agitprop is for whom you are creating empathy, so I’m curious how they were selected.
KA: We originally had 10 characters, five girls and five men. They were kind of representative of different backgrounds: the singer, Ahmed, who is a street poet; Magdy, the father of the five kids; Khalid, who is an outsider, but sort of an insider; Dina, who is a young student; Bothaina Kamel, who ended up running for President [as the country’s first female presidential candidate ever].
While you can have this amazing fantasy of what your characters look like, the reality with verité and documentaries, their actions are what create the trajectory. It’s not so much that we picked them, it’s their decisions that made them characters.
JN: There are filmmakers that make essay films and walk in with a story and find the characters who tell that story. I do the opposite. I find people I fall in love with and connect with … People with a great deal at stake, who put everything on the line for what they believe in.
KA: Some people didn’t make the final cut: Dina disappeared, her parents told her she isn’t going back. Aida dropped out of the square to concentrate on her filmmaking. Rajia’s story was fantastic but involved the legal system and the courts; we couldn’t film in there, and it pulled us into such a large and complicated story that it needed its own film. And we’re actually currently working on a short film just about Rajia.
The crux of the story that we found that created the narrative was the relentless coming back to that square, the character story linked to that piece of land. Occupying that public space, and having a relationship with that space.
JN: Which is hitting on the zeitgeist of the time … There was the Occupy movement here [the United States], Turkey, Greece. Although particulars of each case were very different, it’s this incredible moment we were going through in the world where young people were using public space to change their relationship to government.
KA: What unites the three [key] characters is that they are relentless in their continual return to it.
MH: You mention the square and its mythology, and I’m curious if the film is literally for you about the square, or if, and this comes back to the criticism you mention — is there a broader implication for Egypt, almost by synecdoche?
JN: This film isn’t even about the square! This is about three people, and their life inside of that square.
KA: The mythology of the square for us is only from one perspective: for our characters, it changed the story forever. For someone like Ahmed, who never felt a sense of authorship in his life, he felt like he was the writer of his future in the context of that square. The mythology for us is to try to recreate that moment … Where anything was possible, and the power was in the hands of the people.
We had to break free of a story we were trapped in. As a filmmaker you want to make a nice story about change, with a beginning-middle-end. Change doesn’t happen that way, it doesn’t fit into this three-act narrative. It’s a very difficult process. The transformative change that we seek in society operates on two fronts: There’s the revolution, the rupture, the grand opening; and the evolution, and that operates at a snail’s pace. In history, we’ve seen change’s greatest hits … We don’t spend twenty years in jail with Mandela.
I have faith in their determination … At the same time I am unwilling for foreign journalists to write the history of Egypt, to write that Egypt failed or didn’t fail. Egypt “failing” or not has nothing to do with this.
JN: The difficulty that we find in seeing articles that say Egypt is a failed state, people who get that frustration, are people who fought during the Civil Rights movement. I’ve had people come up who’ve said, listen, our efforts felt like nothing was happening when we were in that moment… That’s important to remember. We find that in Irish independence, in the fight against apartheid.
MH: This is a more formal question about the process of making the movie — how do you reconcile the slow-motion, musically-scored, mood-setting scenes with the goals of cinéma vérité, which is, at least theoretically, more direct than that. I’m thinking in particular of the Tahrir flyover with the music towards the end. How did those scenes interact with the formation of character as it defines the film?
JN: There’s no slo-mo in the film.
MH: The funeral shot is slowed down.
KA: Yeah, that’s the one shot. It’s slowed down.
I think that we went back between different styles in trying to make this film. At one point we interviewed all the characters, and then we decided that we didn’t need that to take you through the film. It was interesting because there was this classical view of vérité, it has to only be vérité … Actually, when we talked to Pennebaker about this, I asked him: How do you wrestle between styles? And he looked at me and was like, “The only style I know is make it as good as you can.”
JN: Make it authentic. How do you make it as authentic as you can? My goal is to go to the people we are depicting. We showed the cuts [to all these characters], and asked did this feel authentic to you? And if it doesn’t, we re-edit it. The only people that know their lives better than you do having followed them are the people themselves.
KA: We can’t have VO [voice-over] at all if it’s vérité, then we added a little VO, and that made it a lot stronger. Pedro Kos, the editor we worked with at the end, he’s poetic in his editing, he uses music, it’s a big tool he uses.
JN: And that emotion that we portrayed in those scenes, it’s what those characters felt.
KA: We showed it to Ahmed and Magdy, and they both felt that the film was true to how they felt. When people from a journalistic or political background see the film, they expect that because this is a political subject, they expect a political film.
We had this screening in Utah, and these Mormons came up afterward and they felt that they identified with Magdy’s struggle between religion and politics. And we had the same situation with a guy from Alabama, whose father is a major leader in the evangelical movement. He had the same reaction to Magdy.
MH: Are there any particular artists you feel a kinship with? Egypt is in the middle of a civic and civil struggle, trying to constitute a polity that is vast and complex — how do you square that with your position as an artist?
JN: I feel my role as an artist, well, Harry Belafonte talks about this, he says: “Artists open up a space for conversation.” It’s as simple as that. I’ll give you an example with this film: We had a group of Egyptian women in their twenties and early thirties, and they brought their families to a screening. From different backgrounds, some veiled, some not. They came up to me at the end and they said that we saw this film on Netflix but we wanted to bring our families to the screening because our families are half-pro Brotherhood, I have family members in Amn el Dawla [the state intelligence organ], some are pro-army, and they’re not talking with each other. One of them called me after — we exchanged numbers — and she wanted to thank me because the film had opened up the conversation in her family. Because it reminded them of an essential truth about how we are all human beings.