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Why Were There Two Drastically Different Versions of 'The Square' at Sundance and Toronto?

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire October 24, 2013 at 1:20PM

"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.
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The Square

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.

Jehane Noujaim
Jehane Noujaim

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.

This article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, Sundance Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival, The Square (Al Midan), Interviews





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