Youth protest movements have swept through the Middle East over the past few years, sometimes with violent government push-back. Director Jehane Noujaim’s new documentary, “The Square,” captures one of these ongoing historical events.
“The Square” delves into the Egyptian revolution, starting with the 2011 Tahrir Square protests and the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak and ending with the 2013 resignation of President Mohamed Morsi. The film follows the experiences of Egyptian activists as they occupy Cairo’s Tahrir Square and demand a new government.
The production team behind “The Square” benefited from a collaborative and evolutionary creative process. They began filming 300 meters from Tahrir Square for 18 days in 2011, until Mubarak’s regime fell. After a brief time away, they returned to Cairo and have been shooting footage for the past two and a half years.
“We all met in the square, and we met our characters because they were sleeping in tents next to each other, and next to us,” Noujaim told Spectator.
One of those people was the film’s producer, Karim Amer. Amer described the series of events that led to creating the documentary, which had no pre-production process.
“It was a complete response to a situation,” he said.
But this response contained many of its own cinematic and logistic challenges, like having five cameras destroyed.
“When something explodes, that’s your editing day gone,” Noujaim said.
Despite these obstacles, Noujaim and Amer managed to capture more than 1,600 hours of footage, much of which documents violent and dramatic events that not only make for compelling cinema but also entail citizen journalism.
“It’s an incredible wealth of content that we hope to utilize in the future,” Amer said.
Despite the abundance of footage, Noujaim distilled it to a 100-minute film with a central character to cohere its elements.
“You’re in the middle of the action—it’s chaotic, it’s loud. It’s difficult to step back and feel the quiet moments that the characters are going through,” Noujaim said. “We decided that we wanted to have one character really lead you through the story.”
Fewer than 20 days before the film’s Sundance premiere, Noujaim decided to use graffiti art as another narrative thread to quiet the film and connect the revolution’s different stages.
As parties with vested interests in Egypt’s developments, Noujaim and Amer found it essential to define the emotional, communal, and political particularities of the revolution.
“What brought us together was a belief in the unbelievable,” Amer said. “And we witnessed the unbelievable. When we witnessed that, we realized that it was an incredible celebration, an incredible testimony, to the power of people when they gather and they come together. But it was also a responsibility.”
This responsibility was a driving force for the filmmakers.
“When you witness the possible, you then have to share that, and you then have to protect that, and you then have to preserve that, because you are part of an experience that is helping shape the future of a nation,” Amer said.
While preserving specifics, the film seeks to connect with a wider audience. When describing what will distinguish “The Square” from the slew of books and films about the Egyptian revolution that are bound to be released in years to come, Noujaim pointed to the film’s contemporary groundwork and overwhelming footage.
“It was this moment of history that was not going to be repeated,” she said.
“The Square” opens Friday, Oct. 25 at Film Forum.