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

Posted on Dec 4, 2013
Courtesy of Noujaim Films

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

By Emily Wilson

(Page 2)

EW: Where were you when you started working on this?

JN: On January 25, I had a very big decision to make—did I want to be in the square with the women I’d followed in 2007 who would be marching, or should I go to Davos where a lot of the leadership of Egypt was going to be? I thought it would be interesting if the country exploded and I was with them, it was a perspective not many people would be getting. So I went to Davos, but of course, none of the leadership showed up. Then I had to get back as quickly as I could.

All my equipment was all taken except for the Canon DSLR, so I took that in. I was arrested 20 minutes after leaving the airport because our car was searched by military intelligence and they saw my previous film “Egypt: We Are Watching You”; they found seven copies in the bag. Not a great title to find when the country is exploding. I was taken in for about eight hours of questioning. When they kept asking me about my filmmaking, I realized they had seen copies of the film. I didn’t know who was interrogating me because they were in plainclothes. I excused myself to go to the bathroom, and I made it to the car and got the DVDs from the car, and tried to break them up and shove them down a drain. I walked back and I guess the guy who was cleaning the bathroom came in holding a shard of the DVD, so all the interrogators looked at me. I said, “Look, I don’t know who you are, I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how long this will go on for, but you have me completely scared. I was not about to be straightforward with you, but now I have to be. I have made a political film about three women in Egypt who I consider heroines, and I think it’s a nationalistic movie.”

It was like something in me broke when I decided to be honest about how I felt regardless of the consequences. There’s a freedom you gain. I think that was a tiny piece of what so many people felt when they went down to the square and said, “No more, and I will not let fear dictate my actions anymore.”

After they let me go, I went directly to the square and found men, women, all different classes, all kind of planning the future of the country. There was this incredible energy. It was magical to be there. When I experience something like that, I want to share it with the world. In the next two weeks I had met all the characters and the crew. They all came organically from the square.

EW: Was it pretty dangerous for you to be there making this movie?

JN: It was a huge security blanket to have Pierre’s place right there. We got an office about five minutes away that I could get to easily. There was also a lot of dead, boring moments in the square—not what you see in a 90-minute movie. If you had told me five years ago I would be running through tear gas and bullets and away from police and army, I would have said, “No way.” But there’s something that happens when you see people willing to put everything on the line. It gave me a reserve of power and strength. You somehow feel like there’s nothing more important than what you’re doing at that time, and you can’t let fear stand in the way. 

EW: What are people finding out through your movie they didn’t know about Egypt before?

JN: Some of the most exciting screenings have been in high schools and colleges. I had a couple of young women come up to me after the last screening, and say, “I haven’t followed what’s going on in Egypt really, but I got so excited about this film. I felt so alive watching it because the characters feel so alive and connected to what they want and they’re fighting for something bigger than themselves. It made me question what I’m fighting for. I’ve been calling myself an environmentalist but what am I willing to do for what I believe in?” So for people we’ve shown it to here, the story is about the process of change and the struggle it takes, and how you have to continue fighting for your rights because rights are never given to you—you’re always taking them. I think on a universal level, the story is about how change happens on the ground. On the news, you see the Million Man March or the bloodiest battle, but you don’t see how you get there, and you don’t see how lonely the fight can be sometimes. You never see Gandhi and Martin Luther King when they’re all alone and scared and they feel like they failed and they have no support. That is the most important point. In the square I really saw with my own eyes that quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

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