24 Jan 2014

A chat with “The Square” director, Jehane Noujaim

The following entry is an off-the-cuff rambling that is the result of watching The Square, and a day later, speaking with the director of the film.

I had the privilege to attend the Directors’ Guild’s Meet the Nominees night this past Friday. It was a symposium, providing the nominated directors the opportunity to talk candidly about their films and process. Really though, it is just the tip of the iceberg. Each film has an entire matrix of events that all somehow came together to form the end result. This is especially true with documentaries, many of which are made “by the seat of their pants” because the story unfolds in front of the camera. Thus my interest in this particular event, and most notably the presence of Jehane Noujaim, director of Netflix’s The Square.

Jehane Noujaim and JJ Osbun at the DGA’s Meet The Nominees Party.

The Film:
Briefly, The Square follows a few specific individuals who were deeply involved in the Egyptian Revolution starting in 2011. If you watched this picture when it first appeared in 2013, then watch it again. Since then, Egypt has provided a whole new chapter to this story, which Jehane added into the narrative before it was nominated for an Academy Award, and events continue to unfold daily. Even still, the film provides an insight into the harsh realities of a protected political-military complex that is palpably dangerous for the filmmakers and characters they follow.

Whether or not you agree with the perspective of the film is of little consequence (at least as far as I am concerned) because, in the end, you will have taken a one-of-a-kind journey with some undeniably brave people. For me, that is the power of The Square.

When Jehane first arrived in Egypt with her normal gear, everything was taken save some Canon DSLRs that were considered harmless (thanks be to the ignorance of customs). The result is that The Square is one of the first documentaries to produce filmic quality imagery, while covering a subject matter that otherwise would be relegated to fumbling cell phone cameras and some occasional ENG news footage.

In fact, some of the main characters managed to produce a significant portion of the footage by teaching themselves how to use the cameras. Despite the hodgepog of  DPs, the overall look was unified and gelled by Pedro Kos, editor extraordinaire, a man with 2 films in the running for the 66th Annual DGA Awards. His duo of lady-directors (Jehane & Lucy Walker, The Crash Reel) couldn’t emphasize enough the importance of having a strong DP coupled with an editor who knows how to squeeze the most out of what is very typically a skeleton crew production (very few crew members). At some point I will sit down with Pedro and get his take on the details, but for now let’s leave it at “good editors are important.”

Pedro Kos and JJ
photo credit: Pedro’s father (thanks!)

First is passion. When Jehane started this film, it was clearly a great movement worth filming, but after the initial climax in 2011 the subject was often, in her words, “lonely.” During the DGA symposium, she made the statement, paraphrasing here, “What do you do when your film starts with the climax?! Mubarak steps down, now what?” The twisted series of events in the months following Mubarak’s resignation were a blessing for her film, but a tragedy for the people of the revolution. Regardless, sticking with a three year story requires passion, something shared by her characters, and over time something that also took a visibly exhausting toll on them.

Second is the struggle to make a change. The Egyptian Army and the Muslim Brotherhood were both more than happy to accept the result of the 2011 Revolution, if only to grab more power for themselves in the process. The fallout from that was the quick return to the oppression of dissenting voices, and a rushed election, placing the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in the Presidency. In a complete about-face, the army literally started wiping the streets of Cairo with the blood of revolutionaries, who wanted neither a religious or military state, and whose protests were really no different than those who started the 99% movement in the United States; that is to say, relatively peaceful. These people wanted change, and no matter if you agree with the type of change they wanted (a civic-run government), they were treated as enemies of their own state. The abuses are horrific and Jehane only gave us a taste, surely holding back for the sake of your stomach.

Riot police clash with protesters in Cairo
The unfortunate reality of what “dispersing the crowd” means in Egypt.

Third is a slight bit of justice. In just the past week, this film has been ripped off Netflix and underground screenings have cropped up in Egypt. Reports have confirmed that a number of these were shut down by the government under threat of arrest should it happen again. Jehane mentioned that she is receiving many messages through social media of people who are grateful that she got this message out into the open, once again. The Western media has a tendency to drop stories in the search for greener pastures and this hurts causes that rely on shining light on oppression as a means to generate change. In the case of the Egyptian Revolution, this happened numerous times over the past three years, however, the Oscar Nomination of The Square has really kicked up the dust again. The Egyptian government is arguably in a really tough spot right now, seeing as how this is the first Egyptian film recognized by the Academy – but it is also airing their dirty laundry. I’m smiling though. It is only natural to enjoy a moment of righteousness.

UPDATE: In recent days (late January 2014) a wave of arrests has taken place in Egypt, focusing on domestic and foreign journalists viewed as not portraying the Egyptian Regime in an acceptable manner.

Thank you Jehane for the great film and your time. Hopefully I can follow this up in the near future. Much to discuss about this world we live in.

2011 – Tahrir Square is saturated with clamor for President Honsi Mubarak’s fall.
President Honsi Mubarak is arrested and becomes Ex-President in 2011. In late 2013, he is released into house arrest.