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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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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.

The Square
The Square

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.

The Square Photo

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?

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







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