Three years ago the Egyptian revolution ignited in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, thrusting that nation into a violent and often bloody attempt to wrest democracy out of chaos. Almost from the start, Jehane Noujaim was there with a crew to document the lives of a handful of activists working to change their country. The 39-year-old Egyptian filmmaker and her crew struggled for more than two years—years in which they shot more than 1,600 hours of footage amid tear gas and terror and at least one standoff with the police. The result was The Square, a character-driven documentary that paints an indelible portrait of a changing nation. Most recently, the documentary has been nominated for an Academy Award, making Noujaim the first Egyptian whose work has been nominated for an Oscar.
Noujaim talked with Women In The World about making her film and the difficulty of screening it in Egypt, about women and filmmaking, and about the future of her work and that of other filmmakers in her native country.
Women in the World: First, congratulations on the film's success, awards, and your Oscar nomination. You are the first Egyptian filmmaker to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. As a female filmmaker, what was your reaction upon hearing that your film was nominated?
Jehane Noujaim: Thank you! My initial reaction was disbelief. My work is always in verite and focused solely on characters. We started following eight characters in January 2011 in Tahrir Square. Their trajectory would determine whether there would even be a film. It's been a tough road but a truly gratifying one. There were so many other great films that were shortlisted [for the Oscar nomination] and just as deserving. But after our success at Sundance and Toronto, two of the best international film festivals in the world, I knew we had a chance.
To be honest, when we set out to make this film three years ago, we had no idea what was going to happen to our characters, to Egypt, to the revolution. That we have accomplished so much, and have come so far, is truly beyond words.
WITW: What do you think this will mean to women filmmakers, and those who want to become one, and what do you want them to know?
JN: This nomination means a lot to me as a woman, but I am not the only one who made this film. I had an incredible, collaborative team, 37 of whom are women. Women worked in all key creative and production positions.
Growing up in Egypt, I was surrounded by incredible women, and in Egypt I have met some of the strongest women that I know. Sadly however, women there are still struggling to gain equal footing. This is true in all aspects of Egyptian society. While making my last film in Egypt, Egypt We Are Watching You [a film about three women fighting for change in '05 and '06], I witnessed firsthand that women are at the forefront of the change movement in Egypt, despite the emotional, psychological, and physical onslaught they continue to endure.
I truly hope that our success inspires other Egyptian women filmmakers to keep pushing forward. We have much to do to gain the respect and dignity we deserve.
If I have any wisdom to impart to other women who want to be or are working as filmmakers, it is that success happens when you keep beating your head against the wall, when you push beyond the limits, and transcend other’s limited expectations of you. Most successful women documentary filmmakers I know share a single trait: They do not give up; they keep on trying. What keeps me going is when I know in my heart that I’m following a story that I care about deeply and that I believe the world needs to hear. So find your purpose and keep at it, because the world desperately needs to examine itself from the perspective of women.
WITW: In relation to the great role women played in the revolution, did you consider including the violence that women activists in Tahrir and elsewhere faced during the period the film covered?
JN: The violence against women activists in Tahrir and elsewhere haunts me to this day. All the women working on the project, including myself, had to deal with this issue to some degree. All of us have had female friends who have been in horrible situations. These attacks are a way to make the public protest space a scary place for women. And because women legitimize protests, this is a tool that is used against protesters.
My films are made in the verité style, meaning I choose my documentary subjects and I film what happens to them. We followed four women and four men, and luckily sexual assault was not part of the character journey of the women we were following. There were four women we actively followed and filmed for a long time that I wanted to feature prominently in the film, but in the end their arc didn’t fit into the overall narrative of people inside Tahrir Square.
Starting in the spring of 2011, the women we were following spent most of their time outside of the Square—Ragia was mostly fighting legal battles, Buthayna decided to run for the presidency and began campaigning, and Aida decided to pursue her filmmaking outside of Tahrir.
Additionally, the stories of Khalid, Magdy, and Ahmed did not include sexual violence, and so including sexual violence in the film would not have come across as organic and felt out of place. Ultimately I felt that it would have deprived this issue of the gravity and attention it truly deserves. It’s important to note that The Square isn’t reportage or an overview of the revolution—rather it is an intimate account of what happened told exclusively through the experiences of the group of protesters we followed.
Violence against women activists is an urgent issue, and it is one that deserves to have its own film. The previous film I made, in 2007, Egypt: We are Watching You, was about a small group of women working to create political change long before the revolution started. Fortunately there are very talented filmmakers who are currently working on other films in Egypt about women, about the violence, and about the political process. Hanan Abdalla (Khalid's sister) and Cressida Trew (Khalid's wife, one of the cinematographers on The Square) are working on a film about women, and I will be there to support and help these filmmakers wherever I can. Finally, we have over 1,600 hours of footage shot during the making of this project, and we are hoping to use some of this footage to create a documentary about Ragia Omran, the human rights lawyer from the film and someone who has spent a great deal of time grappling with these issues.
WITW: How do you plan to move forward to show the film in Egypt? When you appeared on The Daily Show, you said that the film is not allowed to be shown in Egypt. Then a few days later Egyptian officials said it is. What is your response?
JN: Our dream from the start has been to watch the film in Egypt with our fellow Egyptians. Unfortunately we are unable to do that without official paperwork from the censorship board. We requested an official letter before our Panorama festival premiere, and it did not arrive. After much haggling, we were given a verbal go ahead from officials, but were advised against showing the film without an official written permit, lest we jeopardize the legal status of the film and subject our team to possible legal action. Given the circumstances in Egypt, we reluctantly took that advice.
Now we are being told to apply as a foreign film. However, we don't want to do that, as it would be a disservice to all the Egyptians who worked on this film. Furthermore, we have now learned from our advisers that according to the rules of the censorship board, we do not even qualify to be considered for a distribution license. We hope to work with the officials to reform these outdated and unfair regulations, so that our film and subsequent films can be fairly judged on the merits of the work and receive an official response, rather than wither in limbo because of compliance issues.
Meanwhile, we have decided to release the film for free in Egypt, through a high-resolution streaming partner. This way Egyptians, who have expressed a strong desire to see the film prior to the Oscars, will have the opportunity to see the same official high quality version of the film as millions have around the world through Netflix and in theaters.
WITW: Amid the current crackdown, there was news that Magdy Ashour, one of the activists shown in the film followed, was arrested. Are you still in touch with him, and if the film is shown, do you think his safety would be in jeopardy?
JN: Magdy is a 25-year member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was jailed and tortured under Mubarak. Currently the situation for Muslim Brotherhood members is quite dangerous, and they are being rounded up by the state security. The atmosphere in Egypt is such that people have been traumatized into reporting their neighbors who they suspect to be involved with the Muslim Brotherhood. This is happening to many people who don't have the visibility of Magdy. We'd hoped that the added visibility would provide some cover for him and his family, but sadly it seems that this is not the case. About a week or so ago members of state security raided Magdy's apartment building, broke down his door, and harassed his family. Magdy and his brother (who is also being chased by security officials) were able to escape and are now in hiding. He is still active on Twitter and Facebook and has been actively engaging with fans of the film and many around the world who were touched by his story. He has repeatedly made it clear to us that he would rather die than end up in jail again. Obviously we are extremely concerned and scared for his and his family’s situation.
WITW: You edited and reedited the film to include emerging events. Do you plan a follow up to the film that will cover the next chapter of the revolution?
JN: One has to remember that we weren't following events, we were following characters. Their story continues to this day, and will continue for a long time. This film is done. Over two and half years we shot more than 1,600 hours of footage. There are other films being made using some of this footage. I myself will work on another story that came out of this period. The Square still has a long life and we hope to tell a much bigger story using other forms of media, across multiple platforms beyond solely the medium of narrative film. There is only so much one can fit in 100 minutes.