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Meet the 2013 Sundance Filmmakers #56: Jehane Noujaim Fights Alongside Egyptian Protestors in "The Square (Al Midan)"

By Indiewire Staff | Indiewire January 28, 2013 at 6:02PM

Egyptian-American filmmaker and director of the 2001 Grand Jury Prize: Documentary nominated "Startup.com" Jehane Noujaim documents the daily lives of the Egyptian activists during the protests of 2011 in "The Square (Al Midan)." Also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary category, "The Square" is both created by and follows those deeply passionate and invested in the sacrifices that went into the revolition.
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Jehane Noujaim
Jehane Noujaim

Egyptian-American filmmaker and director of the 2001 Grand Jury Prize: Documentary nominated "Startup.com" Jehane Noujaim documents the daily lives of the Egyptian activists during the protests of 2011 in "The Square (Al Midan)." Also nominated for the Grand Jury Prize in the World Documentary category, "The Square" is both created by and follows those deeply passionate and invested in the sacrifices that went into the revolition.

What It's About: A group of young Egyptians brought together by a revolution, finding a new sense of hope for their country. "The Square" celebrates the process of a truly democratic movement as it unfolds in real time. The future of Egypt, the dreams of Tahrir, and the balance of power in the region is at stake right now. By following protesters from the utopia of Tahrir into the transitional period, full of opportunities and dangers, "The Square" follows the journey and power of collective activism and the challenges faced in its attempts to redefine the power structure of a nation. The entire region is actively looking to Egypt for guidance and inspiration. Beyond the region, protesters (collectively hailed by Time Magazine as the Person of the Year for 2011) are alternately revered, maligned, hailed, neglected, and physically abused. In "The Square", we witness the incredible sacrifice that our characters endure on the road to freedom. Through the voices of these daring revolutionaries, we learn why it’s worth it to risk life and limb for their ideals and the future of their country.

And So It's Really About: From a letter from prison one of our protestors wrote:
“We go to the Midan [the square] to discover that we love life outside it, and to discover that our love for life is resistance. We race towards the bullets because we love life, and we go into prison because we love freedom.”
It is this shared spirit that gives light to what our story is really about — sacrifice for ideas that are bigger than the individual and self-discovery. While our characters put their lives on the line and battled the largest standing army in the Middle East with nothing but stones, we as filmmakers were right behind them with our cameras. The footage we have shot is unlike any other footage captured from the revolution. It is captivating and in many cases chilling. At the same time, by living with our characters for close to two years, we were also able to capture a human side few others could, the real fight, and that of their personal struggles that are struggles that everyone, regardless of nationality can relate to. We hope that on seeing this film, our audiences feel like they have experienced revolution, become friends with our characters, and have truly felt the blood, sweat, tears, and joy behind the politics and the news stories of the past 18 months.

What's been your path to filmmaking? Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim has worked on various documentaries in both the Middle East and the United States. Before graduating from Harvard, she was awarded the Gardiner Fellowship for "Mokattam," an Arabic film she directed about a garbage-collecting village near Cairo, Egypt. Jehane then joined the MTV News and Documentary Division as a segment producer for the documentary series "Unfiltered." She soon left her position at MTV to produce and direct the feature documentary, "StartUp.com." The critically acclaimed film won many awards including the DGA and IDA awards for best documentary.
Jehane continued to work on numerous documentaries as a cinematographer including: "Born Rich," "Only The Strong Survive," and "Down From The Mountain," before directing her next feature in 2004. Her next film "Control Room," a documentary that exposes the difference in media coverage between the Arabs and the Western world during the United States’ war with Iraq was also met with critical acclaim. It was for this film that Jehane won the coveted Ted Prize in 2006. Each Ted Prize winner is granted a wish to change the world. Jehane’s wish was to create a day in which the power of film could bring people from all over the world together to form a global community and perhaps form a new understanding of each other. This day was Pangea Day; a live videoconference featuring music, film, and speakers that took place in Cairo, New York City, Rio de Janeiro, as well as other cities around the world.
Jehane has continued to work in the U.S. and in the Middle East on films as an executive producer for such films as Encounter Point and Budrus. She has also co-directed Egypt: We Are Watching You, which premiered as one of the ten films in the Why Democracy Series focusing on contemporary democracy around the globe

"The Square (Al Midan)"
"The Square (Al Midan)"

What was your single biggest challenge in bringing this to the screen? This film was made by and inspired by a group of talented and dedicated filmmakers and people who've been on the ground fighting for a true democratic country over the last two years. The most challenging part of making the film for all of us was being so deeply and personally involved in the events while filming at the same time.

What will you expect of Sundance audiences? There is no such thing as an eighteen day fairy tale story of change, if people can get even a glimpse of the blood, sweat, tears and struggle it takes to really to change a country then I think they're leaving with having learned something very useful. On an information level, I want the audience to understand what happens when all the cameras and all the support leaves. I hope they leave with a completely different version of events than the narrative they've been fed. Its an insider story about struggle even when you loose support and the current of change is no longer on your side, the drive to keep pushing ahead alone because of a deeper set of values and principles that you're unwilling to compromise on.

Indiewire invited Sundance Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they're doing next. We'll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2013 festival.

Keep checking HERE every day up to the launch of the festival on January 17 for the latest profiles.

This article is related to: Sundance Film Festival, Meet the 2013 Sundance Filmmakers, The Square (Al Midan)