The answer, in short, is that history happened.
“The Square,” the new film from Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (“Startup.com,” “Control Room”) about the last few years’ protests in Tahrir Square in Egypt, won the Audience Award at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals. But the film was drastically recut between Sundance and Toronto. It turned out that the elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammad Morsi was just as authoritarian as his predecessor Hosni Mubarak. Though it was suspected that might be the case from the minute he was elected, it became immediately clear just weeks before “The Square”‘s Sundance premiere.
The film, in its most recent version, opens up in limited release tomorrow.
We caught up with Noujaim and her producer Karim Amer at Toronto to talk about winning an Audience Award at Sundance and completely recutting their film.
So you totally recut your film. You had to remind people that history is changing and the film has changed?
Noujaim: The film has changed stylistically, too.
Oh, okay. I wasn’t able to see the first cut.
Noujaim: The first cut was totally different. It was all verite. Ahmed [Hassan, a subject]’s voice wasn’t there in the beginning of the story. We’ve had really fantastic editors come in.
It was important for you, obviously, to get your film in front of the Sundance audience, but why was it important to release that film?
Noujaim: At the time, we were finishing, we felt like this is where we can end, when Morsi was elected, this is the beginning and the end. It is the taking down of the dictator to the election — however you feel about the guy — it’s an election of a new President. Literally three weeks before Sundance, Morsi shoved a Constitution through — it was a Brotherhood Constitution — declared unchecked dictatorial powers, and our characters were back out in the streets. We realized at that point that it was a much more interesting story for it to be about, instead of the political arc, the political narrative of the film, from the bringing down of a dictator to the election of a new President, it was the demand to remove one fascist regime to the demand to remove the next fascist regime. And that’s what it’s about, whether or not that form of fascism takes Mubarak’s face, the military’s face or the Brotherhood’s face. That was really the story, that was the emotional story of our character. We had a difficult time right before Sundance: Do we do this? Everyone had their visas and tickets. We were so honored at the invitation to come. We also felt that this was the story needed to come out, but we also needed to say that the revolution is ongoing. This is going to be a work in progress. The whole team was given such a boost to keep going by winning the Audience Award. We realized that this is not just an Egyptian story. This is a story about activism around the world and what it takes to fight for your beliefs. That was confirmed by the audience’s vote for the film. Sundance was just incredible. They see that this is an ongoing…this is a film about revolution, and it is an ongoing story.
When did you decide to continue shooting?
Noujaim: When our characters were back in the streets. We continued shooting throughout Sundance. There was a team shooting when we were introducing the film on stage. David Courier, the programmer at Sundance, has been very funny about it. “So when are you submitting the next version to Sundance?” He is very cute about it. But we feel like we’ve released a point with the film where it’s reached a full cycle. This is it. Though the revolution continues, the film stands on its own as a documentation of these characters. And it will stand up ten years, twenty years, thirty years from now.
Amer: The characters’ arc has reached a place where it’s solidified itself as the end of the story. The film takes you through political events and historic events. The characters have reached a point where regardless of who’s in power now and who wins an election, they’re going to continue their process of fighting. The message that we’re trying to get people to understand is if you want change, you have to live for that change. It’s not about a decision once in a while at a ballot box. It’s about participating in your society on an everyday life. Audiences can connect to it and take that message to their own local communities and their own local struggles. What’s been great is when people are saying “I forgot I was in Egypt for awhile.” Some of these issues remind me of the fight for civil rights or the fight for LGBT rights or the fight for any rights. Because freedom is never given, it’s fought for. And even after you achieve it, you need to exercise the rights. I’m really keen on this idea of exercising your rights. That’s what our characters are saying in the end. It’s about creating a society of consciousness, where they feel that value and responsibility.
What was the learning experience of making this film like for the both of you?
Noujaim: I think one of the most difficult things with documentaries, especially with verite, is figuring out the ending. I think, and, you know, it was a difficult experience as we got offers to distribute the film and we said, “No, we need to continue to make the film we need to make.” Everyone thought we were crazy. This a deeply personal film about fighting for your principles, what you really believe to be true. It was crucial to us that this film was authentic and about the emotional journey of these characters. We knew at a core level that until we had filmed the emotional journey of these characters, this film wasn’t finished.
You feel at a gut level, when your characters watch the film, you know when you’ve been able to tell the story that at least gives a slice of truth of their life and experience. The fact that we had to wait until this full cycle had been gone through. This is about bringing down anyone that is going to impose a fascist regime on a people that have fought just that. It’s been an inspiring process. And a big learning experience. A learning experience in that you, you have to go with your instincts.
I’ve learned that it’s not over until you feel like you’ve done justice the human emotional journey you set out to tell. We never set out to tell a political story. We set out to tell a story that was about fighting for change. It wasn’t until really a couple of months ago that we felt we had really captured the ending. We were filming up until July 8, up until a month in a half [before our TIFF screenings].
So Sundance had to happen. But also a recut had to happen. For you, it seems, this film had to have two versions.
Noujaim: I don’t regret that we showed it at Sundance at all, for the filmmakers, for the subjects, for this journey.
It’s very confusing for, for instance, our publicists, and our distributors. [laughs] It’s like, no, this is the real, finished, cut.
What were your initial expectations when you decided to pick up your life and your camera in Egypt at that time?
Noujaim: Every time you decide to make a documentary, you imagine where it will be at the end. With “Startup.com,” it was “We’re gonna end with the guys ringing the bell at the stock market and riding away in their yachts.” That didn’t happen, and that’s the most exciting thing about documentaries. To be surprised and proven wrong and have the story changed.
With this film, I think all the way through it…Why do I make a film? I see something that excites me, surprises me, forces me to question my beliefs, challenges me. When I went there with my camera, I went there with a lot of cynicism about whether or not sitting in a square was actually changing anything. I’ve been involved with protest marches in New York. I made a film in 2007 about women in Egypt that were using cameras and media to expose the corruption during elections. I had a lot of questions on whether or not people marching actually changed anything. It didn’t do anything to stop the Iraq War. Things hadn’t changed in Egypt. There was a part of me that thought “Sitting in a square…are these people crazy? Refusing to leave…is that actually change anything?” What I found is an incredible spirit. I grew up in Cairo, and just to give an idea, if you asked a taxi driver or anyone on the street a political question, they would either ignore it and say everything is okay, or everything is crap but I’m not gonna talk about it. There was a big fear of “Who am I talking to?” Is this person a part of the government or secret police. To see people voicing their opinions for the first time and refusing to be afraid. They didn’t want to leave this world to their grandkids. He talks to this taxi driver he talked to. It’s either you take my life or you take my life, my grandkids’, and the grandkids’ of my grandkids, so take mine. They were willing to make a sacrifice.
I’m in a very lucky position. I have an American passport. There are ways for me to get out. I was sleeping next to people where if they were taken away they could be taken away for life. They were doing this because this fight for a democracy was bigger than themselves. And then they won, or they didn’t win, but they made a huge first step, getting rid of the President. Then you had a huge loneliness. Because everyone left. And many of the revolutionaries said, “This is not helpful for our movement. Because we need to change the entire system and the entire world.” And many people that were standing in that square were declaring this victory. And you had the core people still sitting in that square. I thought, what they’re fighting for right now is so important. You never see the Martin Luther King or the Gandhi when they feel completely depressed and alone, when they have no support. You see them when they can manage their Million Man March, when they have successes. But the most important parts of the struggle are when you feel you have no support and you keep on going. When you’ve been cleared out of the square and you’ve had friends killed and you decide to go back. And you decide to go back to the square the next day. That desire to continue was incredibly inspiring. It inspired me to leave my life and stay there in Egypt. I wanted to be able to give that feeling, that inspiration to the rest of the world. That’s what I hoped to do with this film. Some of the most inspiring test screenings we’ve had have been in colleges and high schools. The kids don’t see it as the political situation in Egypt. They came away from the screening and said “These people feel so alive! They’re so determined and connected. And they care so deeply. If they care to do this and the danger is being run over by tanks, then why am I not fighting for whatever cause I’m attached to?” They found the characters we’ve followed to be incredibly inspiring.
How important is it for you to have this film tell a people’s history? For it to go beyond the crowds of people that we see on the news?
Noujaim: Only we will share our stories. The state media is not gonna talk about it. The international news isn’t going to talk about it? If it doesn’t fit into headline, it’s very hard for the news networks to come in. The advantage to a long-form documentary is that you’re able to follow the flow and the wave of events. You’re able to follow the people and their motivation to fight. It’s not just about the event.
Amer: We’re living in a moment where there’s a paradigm shift in how history is being written. People now have the power to shape the narrative, to challenge the narrative. Through this digital era that we’re living in. One photo, one upload that can reach millions of people can get people down to the streets. That idea is very important to us. The ability to stand up to any injustice. The ability to have that voice heard. That is a global issue, and we’d like the conversation to continue. If these people can do it, if tanks can run over protestors. What can you do in the West where you do have certain rights?