Global Issues TED Prize

Revolution in The Square: Q&A with Jehane Noujaim

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Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim won the TED Prize in 2006 with a wish to bring the world together for one day using the power of film. Her most recent work, The Square, saw her heading back to Cairo to track events in Tahrir Square as the Hosni Mubarak regime fell. While there, she filmed a group of local revolutionaries who had also been drawn to the tumultuous events, including the actor Khalid Abdalla and Aida El-Kashef, a cofounder of Mosireen, a media center dedicated to creating citizen journalism during the revolution. The documentary tracks the charismatic group of individuals through their time at the height of the revolution, and continues to tell their stories even after many of the other revolutionaries had moved on from Tahrir Square.

The Square won the Sundance Audience Award in the World Cinema Documentary category earlier this year, and Noujaim and her team are currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the post-production of the film, including editing and further filming. After all, this is a story that is far from over.

I caught up with Noujaim and the film’s producer, Karim Amer, to talk about the film, the achievements of the revolution, and what’s still to come in this newborn democracy.

What are you hoping to achieve with the film?

Jehane Noujaim: I hope people see this is not only a story about Egypt. This is a story about struggle and about fighting for your beliefs and putting everything on the line to fight for what you believe in. That story is interesting when the big news cameras cover it, when you have the entire country behind you — but when the cameras go away and most of the country and state television are calling you prostitutes and thugs and are not behind you, that can be some of the most interesting footage. It really shows what has to be sacrificed.

Are you hopeful for the revolution?

JN: Definitely. But this is a very difficult time right now, and it’s going to be a long process. I don’t think that we’re going to see some of the results for 5, 10, 15 years. This was a fairytale, to expect that in 18 days or two weeks, people in a square were going to be able to bring down a dictator and his entire regime. In a way, by bringing down Mubarak, a lot of the people that were fighting lost the symbol of what the revolution was fighting for. So it became even more difficult after Mubarak stepped down. But what they’re fighting against is the removal of a regime, and that means changing the system. That means dealing a major blow to the entrenched systems that are in place, and that includes the army, the police state, the  former regime, and the Muslim Brotherhood … not because of religious reasons, but because what the Brotherhood tried to do when they got into power was a massive power grab, and so it’s really been a fight against another dictatorship.

You first started working on the film in 2011. In The Square it’s apparent that since then there’s been a change in morale among the revolutionaries. Can you talk a little about that?

JN: The revolution goes in waves. There are times in the film when our characters are completely depressed. There are wins and then there are many times when they feel like the battle’s been lost, and they have to keep reminding themselves that it’s a long struggle. Look at the Civil Rights Movement. Look at any kind of fight for change. People had to keep fighting and taking their rights. Rights are never given to you. They have to be fought for and they have to be taken.

Karim Amer: I think a lot of people we’ve spoken to from Western media outlets are kind of gloomy on the revolution’s outlook, but when we talked to our characters … it took over 30 years to make people realize what Mubarak’s regime was doing and to galvanize enough of a movement to get him out of power. It took over a year and a half to do that with the military. Now, the Muslim Brotherhood’s in power with the first freely elected president, and less than 6 months later, people are back in the streets. Our characters see it, and we see it, as progress. People are starting to react much more quickly to acts of injustice. That’s the new Egypt that many of the people in this movement and in our film are shaping and paving.

So uprising and violence are actually signs that things are improving?

KA: We’re not saying that violence is a sign that things are improving. What I’m saying is that reactions to injustice leading to massive action of people showing their power…

JN: Ideally nonviolent.

KA: …is an act of improvement. You’re going to try to jam the constitution through illegally? Well, we’re not going to stand for that. The action-to-reaction time is improving.

JN: Before Mubarak stepped down, when a massive injustice took place, if you tried to have a conversation with somebody in the street, with a taxi driver, anybody, people would not even speak about it. People were afraid to give their opinions even though they knew that there were massive injustices happening. And even after he stepped down it took a year [for conversations to start happening.] You see in the film, the army was torturing people in the Egyptian museum, but it still took people about 8 months to stand in the street and to say to their army that they would not stand for this any more. And then when Morsi did his power grab, it took them, what, two weeks? Two weeks to go down into the streets. That is a massive change from the Egypt I grew up in.

KA: It is a complete paradigm shift in terms of the mentality of the people. People are no longer living in a culture of fear.

How have things in Egypt changed since you were young?

JN: Probably the biggest change is really seeing people realize that the government is supposed to work for them, rather than them having to be victims of whatever the government decides to do.

KA: Egypt is an epicenter of centralized states. Egypt is the land of the Pharaohs. We’ve been living under a Pharaonic-type of society for 5,000 years. What changed was a huge shift in people’s expectations of their leadership and their expectations of  the future they want to live. That’s why we know that regardless of the short term outcome, the revolution has been successful.

Clearly not everyone from the revolution is pleased with Morsi. Do you think he’ll stay in power?

JN: Right now there aren’t the checks and balances that are in place in the United States or other democracies, so the people gathering in protest around the palace are Morsi’s checks and balances. My hope is that people will continue to express themselves and educate the rest of the country on their rights. But I don’t think that Morsi is about to be ousted anytime soon.

KA: The goal isn’t, like, the continual ousting of people. We’re trying to create a system. Right now a new social contract is being formed. The goal is that any attempts for Morsi to become a dictator are curbed, and that he recognizes the power of the people. If he fails to do that, then I think, yeah, he will not last. But I think that the outpouring of pressure against him is really making him check this again, especially because the Muslim Brotherhood is losing so much support from their own people, who are very disappointed.

JN: In the film, one of our characters starts something called Mosireen, which means “adamant,” and basically it gets cameras out to people to film injustices. One very powerful piece that they filmed later was at a protest at the presidential palace when Morsi did his power grab. A number of Brotherhood supporters trashed the tents in front of the palace, took people, and tortured them. Somebody managed to videotape it. In these torture videos, the Brotherhood supporters were saying, “Who’s paid you to be here? You’re a thug.” That was Mubarak’s exact playbook.

As we watch this happen again, the feeling you get is not that Morsi himself is going to be the savior and change things, but that people are going to keep fighting against the dictatorship and against this kind of rule.

Jehane, I know you spent some time in jail during the filming. What were some other personal challenges that you both faced in making the film?

KA: Of course, Jehane was arrested 3 times throughout the process.

JN: Everybody on the team has been arrested, shot at, or chased by soldiers or police.

KA: Cameras confiscated I don’t know how many times.

JN: We’ve had many cameras confiscated, a lot of footage taken, so that’s probably the most obvious, but we still managed to get all of the footage out of the country and to put a film together.

KA: When you’re documenting something that’s so close to home, what’s at stake for everyone in the film, the whole team, is your country. Your country is being reshaped and redefined, and you have the ability, hopefully, to make some kind of impression of that through the film. So there’s a lot at stake, and there’s a lot of emotion. One of the characters, Ahmed, told us that this film to him is the truth that must be preserved. He said, our generation and our parents’ generation grew up in a country where history was written by whomever was in power, and they could write and say whatever they wanted. This film is our ability to show an alternative version, to preserve the truth of what happened in this square, and he said, if this film succeeds, then our kids will live in a country that’s free.

And I’m like … okay … that’s a lot to put on the film. [Laughs] I mean, we’re happy it means so much, but that’s a huge burden.