“The Square,” a new documentary about the fight for democracy in Egypt, follows revolutionaries onto the streets as they risk their lives for a more inclusive, free Egyptian society. What unfolds is not only a rich testament to the heroism of frontline demonstrators but also a nuanced drama about the definition of revolution itself. Arts & Life writer Gillie Collins sat down with director Jehane Noujaim (“The Control Room,” “Startup.com”) and producer Karim Amer to learn about the filmmaking process.
A&L: You updated the film after “The Square” won critical approval and the Audience Award at Sundance 2013. Why did you choose to extend the documentary?
Noujaim: The first time we allowed the film to end was when we had filmed the political process. We had a political ending, from the removal of a dictator [President Hosni Mubarak] to the election of a president [President Mohamed Morsi]. Then the story became that much more interesting, as we were on our way to Sundance. Our characters were all back in the streets again, saying that they were going to hold government accountable, and they were not going to tolerate fascism and the use of democracy to create another dictatorship. Two weeks before we left for Sundance, it would have been disingenuous to end the film because we knew we had to be back there, back in the street, filming a much deeper story… [about] the commitment by all of our characters to stay with the fight regardless of what happened, regardless of who comes to power, if that person is not living up to the demands of the people. This is a founding period [in Egypt], when a constitution is being written, when the rules of the game are being written, so it’s not a political time yet. We are still in a revolutionary time.
A&L: Why did you decide to tell the story of Egypt’s revolution through the eyes of activists? How did you pick particular individuals to follow?
Noujaim: Well, I make character-driven films, and there’s a reason why this isn’t called “Revolution.” Our hope was to allow people to follow and experience a revolution live, and the way to do that is to feel deeply connected, like a fiction film, through the characters who you are experiencing this through. I try to make films that dramatically unfold as a fiction film would, where you’re following the emotional journey and roller coaster… It’s about seeing the personal story behind the news stories because, in the news… you see the biggest battle, the election, the million man march, but you don’t understand how change happens. You don’t see how people get to those high points. You don’t see the low points. You don’t see the MLK or the Gandhi when they’re completely alone, and they have no support… but it’s in those moments, when they decide to go back and continue fighting, that change is a possibility.
Amer: [The revolutionaries] also come from very different walks of life. You have Ahmed, the main character, who has been working since the age of six. He is very representative of so many young Egyptians who came to the Square. Seventy percent of Egypt is under the age of 30, so this is a youth-led movement. But it didn’t have just youth. I mean, Magdi is a father of five. And he brought that perspective — what it’s like to be part of the Brotherhood… which provides him with an important social safety net. And then we have someone like Khalid… who was forced to grow up outside the country because of his father’s politics… He also provides an important context for us because he doesn’t need to be there. He was in Hollywood, making top films, but instead he understands that this is a pivotal moment in the history of this country, and he needs to be there. He needs to be a participant. We think that social change happens when you have different elements of society coming together to stand for that change, even if their intentions and goals are different. That’s how the characters surfaced. The characters were made by their decisions.
A&L: Do you think Egypt is on the road to stability and democracy? How optimistic are you about next year’s elections and the legacy of these revolutionaries’ cause?
Amer: I think we’re optimistic about Egypt in the long run.… When the demands of the revolution are bread, freedom and social justice, you cannot get that in a year. You cannot get that in 10 years.
That’s why we decided to end the film where we did, when our characters reach a place where they feel that what they’re fighting for is a conscience. People need to continue to be active and participatory if they want to see… changes. And that’s a global paradigm shift that’s happening, in squares across the world… The success of young Egyptians in galvanizing people around the world in that pursuit is something that can never be taken away from them. I think that the revolution has succeeded in demonstrating… what the fight for democratic values will look like in the 21st century.
Noujaim: Even though we are in a dark time in Egypt, I am deeply optimistic because every time we have faced a dark time, people have risen up again. In this revolution… the peoples’ will has continued to come through again and again. A dictator was removed after 30 years. A major blow was dealt to the military, and a major blow was dealt to the Brotherhood, which has had an underground power for 70 years. In terms of looking at the goals of the revolution, which were to give life and legs to social movements, [to try] to create a new constitution to really change the country, it was extremely successful.