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Arts and Culture

Egypt’s Revolution: Director Jehane Noujaim Talks About Capturing the Tahrir Square Uprising

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Posted on Dec 4, 2013
Courtesy of Noujaim Films

Egyptian activist Ahmed Hassan in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary “The Square.”

By Emily Wilson

Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011 after ruling Egypt for more than 30 years, and then, in 2013, a second president, Mohammed Morsi, was deposed. In her documentary “The Square,” Jehane Noujaim, who grew up in Cairo a few minutes from Tahrir Square, follows a group of Egyptian activists fighting for change. Noujaim, the daughter of an Egyptian father and an American mother, is best known for “Control Room” (2004), which upset the Bush administration’s narrative about Al-Jazeera and the war in Iraq, and “Rafea: Solar Mama” (2012), a documentary about a Jordanian woman who comes to India to train as a solar engineer. With her latest documentary, Noujaim concentrates on three main characters: Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and father of four undergoing a crisis of faith; Ahmed Hassan, a young protester from a working-class family who believes that Mubarak being ousted is a dream come true; and Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor who appeared in “The Kite Runner” and “United 93,” and who left London to join the revolution.

In San Francisco recently, Noujaim talked about finding her characters and crew in the square, how Tahrir changed the consciousness of the country, and her decision to go back to Cairo for more filming after the movie won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Emily Wilson: The movie starts with a power outage. Why did you choose to start that way?

Jehane Noujaim: We wanted to start with a natural moment with Ahmed, and that was a moment at his house with his brother. It just shows his relaxed sense of humor. He says the lights are out all over the world, and he lights a candle. In a way, that spark was a little bit what happened at the beginning of the revolution. It was a spark of an idea, and it caught on. Ultimately it’s changed the consciousness of a country and an entire region.

EW: How did you find the characters you followed?

JN: We had the film gods on our side. We found them before Mubarak stepped down. Ahmed I met because a friend of mine was making a news piece about him, and I fell in love with him. His spirit and his purity just emanate from him, and people feel that. He cares so deeply, and he’s so principled. You look for characters you want to spend time with because if you don’t feel intrigued by them, you’re never going to intrigue an audience. They have to—Ahmed’s an incredible joyful, charismatic person, and if you follow him in the square for more than 10 minutes, he’ll start speaking and then he’ll be surrounded by people. People are drawn to him, so you knew he was going to be in the center of the action.

Khalid I met probably the fourth day of shooting. He was sleeping in a tent with his fiancee at the time, Cressida Trew. I had met her—she’s an aspiring filmmaker, and she wanted to stay in Egypt, but she wanted to be part of something. She had seen my previous film, “Egypt: We Are Watching You,” about three women who were fighting for political change. She said, “You should meet my fiance,” so I met him and he was so articulate at some very confusing times. So Cressida became one of the filmmakers and she followed Khalid around and that’s the reason we have such intimate footage of him.

Magdy I met because his tent was near ours. I met him through Pierre who had the apartment near the square who I’ve known for about 10 years. So you had a Muslim Brotherhood guy talking with a Coptic Christian, both scheming and dreaming about the future that was being created for Egypt. It was amazing this guy had such an open mind and a desire to interact with people so different from him.


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