Jehane Noujaim’s The Square: a Documentary about Egypt and the power of Film

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Jehane Noujaim The Square documentary oscars

Egyptian protesters at the Tahrir Square.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square follows the Egypt revolution between 2011 and 2013 by focusing on three protesters: the young Egyptian Ahmed Hassan, the Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour, and the British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdala, known for his role in The Kite Runner. The film features some harrowing unscripted scenes, such as a tank running over and killing protesters in a camera-shaky chaotic sequence that put the film crew in real danger. In one of the chaotic scenes in The Square, the army seriously injures Ahmed—therefore, although The Square may seem almost surreal at times, it is about as real and documentary as it gets.

The Square is one of the five nominees for Best Documentary Oscar this year, and one of three nominees about political or historical events. The Act Of Killing revisits Indonesia’s 1965 genocide through the eyes of the perpetrators, while Dirty Wars follows US military intervention in Afghanistan and other countries. The other two documentaries, Cutie and the Boxer and 20 Feet from Stardom examine art topics.

Jehane Noujaim The Square documentary oscars 2014

Ahmed Hassan, one of the protesters, but also a cinematographer for Jehane Noujaim’s The Square

There was no pre-production for The Square. Noujaim, an American-born Egyptian, met the cast and crew on the square, and later they decided to make the film together. The Square premiered at Sundance 2013, but at the time, protests in Egypt had started again. Therefore, after Sundance, Noujaim and her team spent eight more months shooting and editing to include the new footage. The director said The Square’s style changed significantly after the re-edit. In a smart business move, Netflix signed as the distributor for the movie and thus earned its first Oscar nomination after receiving three Emmy’s last year.

The director said the film was a collaborative effort and a learning process. Even through this is not Noujaim’s first film (she has directed Control Room and Startup.com among others), she had never before worked with the DSLR cameras used in the film and she and her team had to learn how to use the cameras and the editing equipment.  The movie has credited eight editors and four cinematographers, one of them lead character Ahmed. In one of the scenes in The Square, he says:

As long as there is a camera, the revolution will continue.

Jehane Noujaim The Square documentary oscars 2014

“The camera is out weapon”: The Square’s graffiti stencil from the films official website. Film and social media were the main means of building awareness about the Egypt revolution.

Even though the film will not be shown in Egypt, it is nevertheless as celebration of film power and freedom of speech. Noujaim said in an interview the military prohibited filming, confiscated footage, and detained Noujaim and the film cast and crew. The Square’s official website recognizes the role film and social media played for building awareness about the events in Egypt. The website provides a graffiti stencil with the slogan “The camera is our weapon.”