But as her award-winning film "The Square" makes its debut to
a wide audience next week via streaming company Netflix's 40
million subscribers, Noujaim believes Egypt is definitely not
back at square one, although it is a dark time in the country.
"Everyone feels like this was an incredibly important process
that needed to happen and we will never go back to where we were
three years ago," Noujaim told Reuters.
"The whole country," she added, "has gotten a political
For the viewer, "The Square" may be like a crash course in
understanding Egypt today, taught by protesters who first
started gathering in Tahrir Square in January 2011 to call for
the end of President Hosni Mubarak's three decades of rule.
For Noujaim, a 39-year-old who made the acclaimed 2004
documentary "Control Room" about broadcaster Al Jazeera, it was
a lesson in patience and figuring out when to wrap the film.
When she was at the Sundance Film Festival collecting the
audience award for "The Square" a year ago, she already decided
she had to go back to Egypt to keep filming.
The "work in progress" screened at Sundance covered the fall of
Mubarak and ended with the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader
Mohamed Mursi as president in mid-2012. But then, activists
returned to the streets at the beginning of 2013 and the
military deposed Mursi in July.
"Mursi was using the tools of democracy to basically create
another dictatorship, this time a dictatorship that relied on
manipulating people through religion," said Noujaim.
The turn of events, in her opinion, made the story she wanted to
tell more interesting.
"It became about the fight against fascism, whether the face of
that racism was Mubarak or the military or the Muslim
Brotherhood," she said.
"OPERATING ON FUMES"
In that fight, Noujaim quickly found a cast of characters in
Tahrir Square from diverse backgrounds that allowed her to build
from the very beginning a character-driven narrative. She had,
she said, "the film gods looking down upon us."
Three characters take center stage: Ahmed Hassan, a working
class man in his mid-20s, street smart but struggling to get a
job; Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor in his mid-30s who
starred in "The Kite Runner" and who forms a bridge between
activists and the international media; and Magdy Ashour, a
member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his mid-40s tortured under
Mubarak who goes through a crisis of faith about the revolution
and the Brotherhood.
[to top of second column]
"When you are making these films, they are unfunded,
we are basically operating on fumes, we are there following people
for two to three years," Noujaim said, adding "so you had better be
sharing people who are worth sharing with the world."
Noujaim, who grew up 10 minutes from Tahrir Square, also assembled
her crew at the square, knowing that she couldn't hire people from
outside and ask them to take the risks of filming in the middle of
"Everybody on our film team was either chased down the street by
police or army, or arrested or shot at one point or another," she
Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan called
the film "a compelling, inside look" and said "it wouldn't exist
except for the passion and determination of filmmaker Jehane Noujaim."
"The Square" won the top documentary prize at the Toronto Film
Festival in September, best feature from the International
Documentary Association last month and is one of 15 documentary
features shortlisted for an Oscar ahead of January 16 nominations.
Perhaps most importantly, it was the first major documentary
acquired by Netflix as part of its strategy to build up original
programming. Noujaim said Netflix was the best choice to reach a
wide and diverse audience because its streaming subscription costs
$8 a month.
Netflix begins streaming the documentary in all its territories on
January 17 and has agreed to allow the film to have theatrical
release in eight to 10 U.S. cities. It will also be distributed in
countries where Netflix does not operate.
Meanwhile, there is one key place where it cannot yet be screened:
The film was submitted to state censors and Noujaim is awaiting
clearance nearly three months later. Knowing what is at stake, she
speaks carefully about the current state of affairs in Egypt, where
new presidential elections could happen as soon as April.
"It's the most important thing for us and our whole team of Egyptian
filmmakers that this film is shown in Egypt," Noujaim said. "So we
are going to do everything in our power to make that happen."
(Editing by Eric Kelsey and Ken Wills)
[© 2014 Thomson Reuters. All rights
Copyright 2014 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published,
broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.