NF: The Square is really the best film I have seen this year. I want to know: How on earth did you manage to make this film, how many hours of footage, how many risky moments, how much pain did this film cost?
KA: Good question.
JN: It was a very collaborative project. Probably the most collaborative I have ever worked on in terms of it being quite a large team. As you know, it takes a village to make a film, but in this case we all met in the square. So in terms of the pain of making it and being dangerous, I don’t think any of us would have been there making a film if we were not going to be at Tahrir Square anyway as Egyptians, as protesters. We shot 1600 hours of footage among the five of us over three years, and we got an office which is next to the square. The flip side of it being a collaborative project was that we had many revolutionary voices involved in the edit for many months, and at a certain point we had to turn it into a dictatorship, take the film to the UK and then to L.A, far away from the action, where we could replay the story of the film outside of the events and what people felt was crucial to tell, because we were told many times we would be destroying the revolution if we left this scene or that scene out. That was probably the most difficult part.
NF: Well, going back to the first point you made about that, how any people did actually film the film? Is it just you two doing the filming? How many people did actually film it?
JN: There were about four main shooters, cinematographers, so there was myself shooting and Karim recording sound. Then we had a DoP, who we met in the square, who is a very talented director of photography, and a lot of the footage you see with tilt shift lens, and these beautiful wide shots from above were filmed by him. And Cressida Trew, who is English, who I met in the square, she was Khalid Abdalla’s girlfriend, now wife, who I thought would be a fantastic person to film his…
KA: She got us into the bedroom, which we didn’t think would be possible. It gave us such intimacy… the Skype calls with his dad, was a really great contribution… and Ahmed, the character in the film learned how to shoot, and he probably, like half-way through the making of the film, he probably shot…
JN: … about 20 to 25 percent of the footage, because he was at the frontline. So he basically substituted his rock for a camera. Some of the most intense, frontline footage was through Ahmed, and I have probably filmed most of the character, emotional stuff with Magdy and Ahmed.
It takes a village
to make a film, but in this case we all met in the square
NF: Were there two types of the film or two versions? Because the film I saw, last January, the film you showed at Sundance, was really quite different from the film I saw a couple of months ago. And it is different not just because the chronology has changed because of what happened, it seems to me it has a different point of view, is that the case? You said that you imposed that dictatorship when you went away from Egypt to cut it, but it does seem to have changed a lot, the film, as you were making it.
JN: Yeah, when you have a film five minutes away from Tahrir with every event being crucial and you feel like you have to pack it in. It was a very immediate and very loud, busy and intense film. I like the first cut of it, which we showed at Sundance. But after showing it in the States, I the film needed more breathing moments, needed to be led through by one character because I felt you needed to be more emotionally connected to a person, and so we chose Ahmed, to be that character and really the story is lead by him…
KA: … and also leaving Cairo made us feel: what moments will people remember in two, five years, or ten years from now? And how can we make the film be more led by an emotional truth rather than an understanding of what happened at a particular event?
NF: But it is, to my mind, when I saw the first film, it was like really great music outtakes from Les Miserables. It was like basically your own square, and this is what you see in a revolution. Now this cut two months ago, I really liked, because you had a bit of distance, it’s a sort of anatomy of revolution, it feels to me that if you had been able to record the revolution in Paris in 1848, to make a film about it, this is what you would have come up with. It is not such a happy film, it records basically – well that is a question for you – it seems to record the unsuccessful, the outright failure of the revolution. If that is the case, how did you come to that lack of point of view? Did you wake up one morning and say: ‘Well we’ve got to change the film a bit because of what happened’ or how did that occur really?
JN: I think when we ended the film the first time, the people continued to fight. We had allowed the film to end, the first time, with the election of a new president, whether you liked that president or not, Mursi. And then people were still continuing to protest in the streets about what he had done with the opposition. So we realized that our characters are going to continue fighting, and it became about something else than the political story line, which was about bringing down a big dictator to the election of a new president. The story line changed from the bringing down of a dictator to the bringing down of the next face of fascism. No matter if the face of fascism was Mubarak, the military, or the Muslim Brotherhood. So it becomes about two betrayals rather than one, it becomes about the betrayal of the army and then the betrayal of the Brotherhood. Now, did we wake up one morning? We basically felt like we had to follow the action because what our characters started to deal with was the use of religion in politics, and the use of religion to create another fascist state. So that is an incredibly important theme across the Middle East…
We were told many times we would be destroying the revolution if we left this scene or that scene out
KA: … it was also, I think, the idea that you want to end the film with an event, with something that is happening, this big conclusion that you are supposed to get to. I think that what we found in the second cut, was that the success or the failure of this revolution will not be defined by a single event, it will not be defined by the election of a president. And that is truly the end, the understanding that the goal of this revolution is not going to be accomplished in a year or two or even ten. What the people are fighting for, or at least the characters get to, is this idea that they want to build a society of conscience, that they are fighting for something bigger than just the political continuum. I think that they got to that place…
NF: Do you think they are fighting for anything remarkably different than what any of the European countries went through in the revolutions in the 19th century?
KA: No, I think they are fighting for the same thing. I think that what this film taps into is the eternal fight that we see; the power of people versus the power structure. I think that there are these moments in history where you have this rupture, where you have this kind of awakening where people realize that they have to re-elect the social conflict and the only way is to go down the streets.
NF: Did you change your mind about the world when you were making the film?
KA & JN: (Laughing) …yes.
NF: Well, I imagine you did. How did you change your mind? Did you get more or less sceptical about revolution? Or did you become more hostile to organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood; actually you project them extremely sympathetically in the film. One striking thing about the film is that there are no villains. Everybody is caught up in history, in the revolution, but there aren’t any vile or vicious people. There are people who fail and there are people who succeed, not many of the latter. But you are sympathetic to everyone aren’t you?
JN: First of all we are sympathetic to our characters, and one of the characters is a Muslim Brotherhood character, who is really a foot soldier of the Muslim Brotherhood…
KA: … but I think that also has to do with that Jehane comes from this varieté background. She really isn’t the kind of filmmaker who wants to impose her view on people, but rather capture moments, and take the audience on a visual journey, where you experience and feel things for yourself, and reach your own conclusions. We could have easily have villainized the army and the Muslim Brotherhood in different ways, but she really inspired the team to capture the humanity of it. And maybe show that it is more complicated than to just say, it is about these people and these people, and this is the good guy and this is the bad guy. There were so many cameras in the square, but Jehane really helped us to focus on characters and…
JN: … I was channelling Chris and Pennebaker who you know well. You know, basically you stick to characters who surprise you, excite you and challenge you. You stick to them like glue. These are the people who will take you through your journey…
KA: … I think many films will be made about the revolution in the years to come, and books, the kind of things that will go more into the details of the actual political minutiae. What we felt an ability to do, and the responsibility to do it, because it takes you there and allows you to live through it, and take the ride and allows you to come to a conclusion.
NF: What I can judge from reading about the revolution, if you call it a revolution, is that your film is very accurate, your film records things in a way that really smart historians or really smart journalists have done. I mean, it does have an interpretation, it does have questions. My question is: Did you do that along the way, or was there a moment when you said, I must make the film about those questions? How does that actually happen when you have that much material?
JN: When we were editing Startup.com, I would take breaks from the guys who were these business dotcom guys, who would stress you out as you were editing. I would take breaks and go down to the Pennebaker Library and sit and watch these films, where you are put into this cab watching Bob Dylan or into the energy war in the seventies and you are just watching, and there is a value to that. And I think as time passes you see different things in a varieté film. You try not to impose your questions on the scene because there is a lot that you don’t understand at the particular moment. You try to let things play out as much as possible. I think that I saw the value in trying to just experience with intelligent people who are pushing the limits and asking questions, who are inside the moment. When I watch Startup.com and when I watch Control Room I see different things, because we let things just play out. And my hope was to do the same thing with the revolution or whatever you want to call it, because there is going to be a million books written about it, and many films made about it. But the experience we can give is just allowing the action to unfold in front of you, and allowing the audience to be put into the middle of it. Of course you look for people who are going to give some kind of intelligent perspective on what is happening, and you look for people in the square, you get into conversations with them, and you ask the questions you are curious about at the time. You try to find the moments of the revolution, or the uprising, over the last three years that you feel really shifted the fight. You also try to find a larger focus from the emotional highs and lows of the characters, because the more specific you get with the characters and in terms of what they are going through, the more universal the film becomes.
NF: Right. Let me ask you a question, how on earth do you fund such a film, which is basically an open-ended commitment. When you started making the film, you couldn’t have known what direction the events in the square would take, you couldn’t have known that you would have 1600 hours of material – it might have been 400 hours of material or 100 hours. And indeed the events in the square might have gone on for another three years, and so how do you start to think about how you will finish such a film?
JN: (Laughing). I don’t know.
NF: I mean the film is like a miracle, you couldn’t advise any filmmakers to make a film in this way. You had to make the film in this way, and it is probably going to be the only film in your life you will make this way, because economically it is an impossibility, isn’t it?
JN: Yes, it is an impossibility. You have to be crazy, and you have to have crazy people financing your project with you, and they have to trust you…
KA: ….we also realized that some of the material that we were recording was also evidence, we used it in this film, but it could also be used for other purposes. Some of it will have meaning in five years from now, with a completely different purpose…
JN: … there is a ridiculous amount of hours also because there were many times, where we would be in the square and our characters would be long gone. So we weren’t filming anymore for the film, but because people in the square would say: You are the only ones in the square with cameras, you are the only witnesses, so we might need to use this footage.
KA: I think that in terms of history, there was the sense that such a record was important, because in Egypt people were trying to write history for themselves for the first time. The narrative they’ve been told all their lives is that Egypt is the land of the sparrows and you will be ruled by an iron fist, whether you like it or not. And that was challenged. We felt it was very important to capture that, and I think that for a documentary filmmaker you have an opportunity to get a first-hand account of history and you are providing a kind of platform, where you can share these films as experiences for people to interpret and analyze in their own way. You don’t form an opinion as much and interpret the history. I think that the making of this film really struck the core of that in a way…
JN: But you were asking a question about how we are funding it…
NF: This was people who believed in your project, who gave you money. There aren’t commercial investors involved? It is just people who care passionately about what you are doing, right?
JN: Yeah, it is… It is grants, it is friends, family, it is people working on…
KA: … the issues, it would have been very difficult having partners, especially commercial partners, because where the story was going wasn’t always clear. For most people the story ended where we really got started…
NF: In my experience from work, this is the sort of funding we have to find in the next years. I mean we can’t allow documentary films to be dominated by commercial funding. Because it means that films like yours can’t be made, and I am full of admiration for people who put money into projects like this, but I think we have to find more people like that. One question is: What happens to such a film, particularly in the Middle East, what is the life you foresee for it? And the other thing that I am really fascinated by is what will you do with this wonderful archive? Are you going to create an archive of all the stuff that you didn’t use in Cairo?
JN: Oh, a really good question. We are trying to get the film through censorship in the Middle East, which the police said would be impossible, but we are working on it. If it doesn’t pass through censorship, we have a plan to just try to make it available for free, on DVDs, and just getting it out to as many people as possible that way. In terms of the archive, we are figuring that out now. We want to be able to make it available for people, so we are talking to different organizations right now about the best way to make it available to people. There are also updates that we want to be doing to the film, it is a living, ongoing thing, so we will be putting up short pieces on our website, and we are trying to figure out a way to fund that and the continuation of it…
NF: Yeah, because it seems to me that you should have a quick website for this film that will last for years. It is very important, and people should watch this film in ten years’ time. It is going to be a principle source of memory for the Egyptian revolution. I feel that you should have a globally available archive because whatever the Arab Spring was, it is all in your film and people all over the world have to consult with it, and it has to be available in a very cool, accessible, rational way. You just have to do this. I think it is important really, to get it shown in cinemas, but I agree with you, you must show it on television throughout the Middle East if that is possible. When you talk about censorship, does that mean you couldn’t show it on Al Jazeera and have it broadcast into Egypt, is that not possible?
JN: No, we can’t show it in… There is a big festival in Egypt coming up, that wants to show it, which will be great because it will get a lot of press there, but we can’t show it there unless the film passes through censorship.
NF: When you talk about censorship, what is in the film that the censors will reject? Is it the depiction of the events? What is it that they want?
JN: It is what they consider being anti-military, because right now Egypt has a transitional government, but it is the military that is in power. So we can be as critical of the Brotherhood as we want to be, because the Brotherhood is no longer in power. And in terms of Al Jazeera they have their own political point of view. We are going to take it to Al Jazeera Arabic and see what they say, but their coverage has been quite sympathetic to the Brotherhood.
NF: Because they have a view that the democratic elections, even if they produce undemocratic results are better than no elections… But that’s their point of view. But you are not, in my view, unsympathetic to the military. In fact, if you were training army officers, I would suggest they should look at your film, because you describe the difficulty of the army. You don’t say the army didn’t do their things sometimes. You are very sympathetic towards the role of the army in the film.
JN: Well, our argument against the censorship is basically that all of the atrocities that the army has already committed are all on Youtube. So it is not like our film is showing something that the world hasn’t already seen. We just put it together to have an understanding of the narrative over the last two and a half years through the perspective of some of the people on the ground. We think it is very important to get it out across Egypt, especially in these times, when there is still a curfew, people are still being arrested, and there is still a lot of violence. It is a very dark time in Egypt and it is a very divided country right now. And I think it is important to see a film where friendship survives through the massive division, and people start remembering the ideas we were originally fighting for. That is why we are trying to get it out there as soon as possible.
NF: Okay, I think that is good. I can’t think of any more to ask actually…
JN: Can we ask you questions?
NF: You can ask questions, but I don’t think that those questions will be as interesting as me asking you questions. But you can ask me questions.
JN: Are there films about uprising or revolution that you have seen?
NF: I don’t think so; I think films made about history while history is going on are really rare. I think the greatest film that I know about contemporary history is The Death of Yugoslavia, a series that Brian Lapping and Norma Persy made about the Yugoslavian Wars, but they were in the past. They were a narrative. I think a varieté film about a revolution… you are the first in the field. I don’t think anyone has ever tried to do that. I liked what you said earlier about conscience being really important, because by the end of the film, it seems that you have recorded the beginning of something that will never end in Egypt. They will never think about getting back to what things were like before the revolution, they have to live with the consequences. Whether the revolution was a success or not, there will be ideas. And the ideas are not resolved yet, it is not clear by the end of the film who is going to win. What is so great is that it is an observational film, it doesn’t have any preconceptions, it is great that you just look at what is in front of you.
JN: Yeah, but you can’t plan with these kinds of films… We had no clue what was going to happen. We were all revolutionaries as well; we were all protesters living in the moment. We would try to ask about what was happening next week or a month from now, to try to plan a schedule. But there was no schedule to this thing. You always, when you make these films, try to imagine an ending, imagine a story line and that. And you always get surprised and proven wrong in your prediction. But you try to have a prediction, you try to have some kind of plan that you can give your crew. But in this case it was very difficult because you were just waiting for… It was a very reactive, very reactive filmmaking process But, what did you want to say, you have made films before, was there ever a situation where…
NF: No, never. I mean, look, the only event that matches anything like what is happening in Egypt was in 1968, and I was too young then, but the fact that films made about 1968 have been turned into rather well-selling archive films about what happened globally in 1968. But there isn’t a film recorded at the time in 1968 that gives you a sense of following the events and understanding them as they happened. I mean there was just nobody doing that, they were going out in the streets and filming a lot, and what they were usually doing was turning them into rather sensational news bulletins. The news bulletins made of 68 are actually better than the news bulletins made now. They were shot in beautiful colour, and there were a lot of wonderful cameramen who actually recorded what happened in Chicago, what happened in Paris.
So the films that we do have about 1968 are really put together 20-25 years later. And they don’t have that immediate fix. They are not that exciting. Once again, you are to my knowledge the only people who have turned this whole process into a big film, so that is the innovation, and that is what – apart from having understood what is going on in Egypt – that is what you should get applauded for in my view. _
Directed by Jehane Noujaim.
Egypt, USA, 2013. 95 mins.
Directed by Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim.
USA, 2001. 107 mins.
Directed by Jehane Noujaim.
USA, 2004. 84 mins.
THE DEATH OF YOGOSLAVIA
Directed by Brian Lapping and Norma Persy.
UK, 1995. 50 mins.
Nick Fraser was born in London in 1948 and educated at Oxford. He has worked as a journalist, independent television producer and programme editor. Currently he is editor of Storyville, the BBC’s long-running and successful series of international documentaries. Programmes shown on Storyville have won many awards, including an Oscar, Sundance prizes, Peabody awards, IDFA trophies and Griersons. Nick Fraser has written five nonfiction books, including The Voice of Modern Hatred and Encounters with the European Far Right, and he is a contributing editor of Harper’s magazine, New York. His latest pamphlet, Why Documentaries Matter, is published by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Nick was the series editor of the global documentary project Why Democracy? and executive producer of Why Poverty?
Jehane Noujaim is an Egyptian-American filmmaker who is best known for directing films such as Startup.com, Control Room, Rafea Solar Mama and now, The Square.
Karim Amer is the producer of The Square. He is an Egyptian-American entrepreneur, who was raised between Miami, Florida and Cairo, Egypt. Karim graduated from New York University in 2005 with dual majors in Economics and Political Science and a minor in Entertainment Media and Technology.