Set to debut on Netflix 17 January, The Square was easily one of the most anticipated films of 2013 in Egypt, and audiences were hugely disappointed when the film was not shown at the Euro Film Panorama as scheduled. In anticipation of the film’s release, the Daily News Egypt was invited to a media briefing with the cast and the filmmakers, with Reza Aslan as moderator.
Aslan introduced the film by saying that it went beyond headlines and that it was filmed at a crucial moment for Egypt. Both the director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer are Egyptian-American, something they said put them in a unique position while filming. Noujaim is no stranger to capturing complicated stories on camera; one of her previous releases is The Control Room, a film about the Iraqi war.
Noujaim said: “I make character-driven stories. I follow two to three characters because if you are following a story, you do not need to be aware of all the facts on the ground.” She said this is ideal for an audience who is not familiar with Egyptian politics and can instead relate to the more human side of the narrative.
For The Square Noujaim followed 10 people: “We followed different, interesting people that we met in the 18 days. These included people like Ragia Omran, a human rights activist and the recipient of the 2013 Robert F. Kennedy award, as well as filmmaker and actor Khaled Abdallah, Bossaina Kamel and Ahmed Hassan, who ended up being the main character that we follow,” she said.
Producer Karim Amir said: “One of the biggest struggles we had was to show that Tahrir was part of a global story and that it is about human struggle. We wanted to show that even if you did not know anything about Middle East politics, you could relate.”
We asked the filmmakers how relevant the film was at this moment, three years after the uprising in Tahrir Square, and when it would be shown in Cairo, if at all. Noujaim answered: “The film shows things like the people’s relationship with the army, their relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and it emphasises some of the grey areas, like with Magdy, one of the characters of the film and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He is conflicted about some things and sure of others; he is not a ‘sheep’. An international audience does not know these grey areas.”
The filmmakers added that the film reminds us of why people took to the streets in the first place; “it can serve as a starting point for conversation about the movement,” Amir said.
In response to the question on the film’s screening in Cairo, they said: “We submitted the film to the censorship authority two and a half months ago and so far we still haven’t gotten a letter. Previously, they offered us a festival licence which we refused, because it would have meant that the film could only be shown once and we wanted to reach the largest audience possible.”
Amir added that he was optimistic despite all of this: “We have a new appointment next week but generally, Egyptian bureaucracy needs a whole other film to discuss it properly.”
One concern raised by a guest was that the film did not take into account the violent dispersal of the Rabaa El Adaweya sit-in and that it is unclear what happens to Magdy, the Muslim Brotherhood character. The filmmakers countered that they had submitted the film to the Toronto International Film Festival in September and that the Rabaa dispersal occurred on 14 August. “We stopped filming by then; this isn’t a seminal film on the revolution; it’s just three people’s experience of the square,” said Amir.
Nojuaim added: “We could not document everything and we had to make a choice. For example, an issue like sexual harassment needs its own film and the problem with shooting something in the cinéma vérité style is that you can only document what the characters are doing.”
One of the main characters of the film, Ahmed Hassan, said participating in the film changed him in ways he did not expect: “To have someone relay my experience and document it, is one of the most important things to happen in my life.”
Despite the current developments in Egypt the filmmakers see the film, as well as the uprising, as having changed many Egyptian lives. “There is a change in consciousness,” said Noujaim, “people want to see tangible political change but it is harder to see this more subtle change in consciousness.”
The film will be released on Netflix this month, and although the service is not available readily in Egypt, the filmmakers hope it will receive a commercial release. “[The film] is a slice of this history. It is not a bookend, but a conversation starter,” concluded Aslan.