January 17, 2014
On a recent afternoon, Jehane Noujaim apologized for checking her cellphone in the middle of an interview. The director of “The Square,” an immersion into the Egyptian revolution, wanted to make sure her producer, Karim Amer, was going to be able to get back into the country — his country — to see an ailing relative. Such apprehension was nothing new for Noujaim.
“The Square,” nominated Thursday for an Academy Award for best documentary, opened Friday in theaters and via Netflix, but has yet to be screened in Egypt, whose tumultuous recent history is its subject. “The film is in censorship,” she said. “They won’t issue a letter to show it publicly. There’s an attempt to whitewash the last three years. That period is given intimate perspective in the film, which tracks the downfall of dictatorial Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 after 18 days of mass protests and military intimidation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
The story continues as Mubarak’s elected successor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, also is toppled, amid rising violence and discord between religious and secular factions. The tilts and turns meant that, shortly after winning an audience award for “The Square” at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Noujaim went back to shooting and re-editing the film. “Most of these verite films, you make up a story that you think you’re following,” said Noujaim, whose films include “Control Room” and “Startup.com.”
“You make a plan and God laughs, right? And that’s the exciting thing about making these films. You don’t know which way a story is going to go. But this story, much more than anything I’ve ever worked on, I had no idea where it was going. We had to have people ready to film at any moment.” The Harvard-educated filmmaker, 39, was born in Washington but raised in Cairo between the ages of 7 and 17. She grew up a few minutes from Tahrir Square but never imagined that one day she’d be sleeping in it.
“There was no place else I wanted to be in the world when things started happening there,” Noujaim said. It was in the square that she met the film’s key figures, each a different piece of the populist puzzle that came together in the story. “You look for people who will take you into worlds that you will never ordinarily see.”
The Academy Award nomination is the first ever for an Egyptian film. Noujaim compared the moment to “getting accepted to the World Cup for the first time.” The timing is crucial, as the country voted last week on a new constitution — backed by the military government — with presidential and parliamentary elections expected soon. “What Ahmed said when we were short-listed was, this means that despite censorship that this film will be unstoppable and our story will never be able to be obliterated or silenced,” Noujaim said. “The government will be in a very uncomfortable place, which is exactly where they need to be put for censoring a film about a hugely important chapter of Egyptian history.”