Tuesday, January 14, 2014

PSIFF 2014: AL MIDAN / THE SQUARE (2013)—A Few Evening Class Questions For Director Jehane Noujaim and Producer Karim Amer

Situated in the True Stories sidebar at the 25th edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF), Jehane Noujaim's Al Midan (The Square, 2013) chronicles the communal conscription of space for political assembly and energizes historical events with intimate reportage. As boasted on the film's theatrical poster and recited in PSIFF's program capsule: "The people demand the downfall of the regime! This slogan echoed throughout Cairo's Tahrir Square during the revolutionary fervor of the Arab Spring that gripped Egypt and enthralled the world. But who were the people shouting the slogan, what drew them to 'The Square,' and—given the convoluted events that followed—what did it all mean, anyway?

"These questions are addressed in the most cinematic way possible in Jehane Noujaim's revelatory documentary. From Mubarak's fall to the removal from power of Mohamed Morsi, The Square focuses mainly on the lives of three charismatic activists. No mere chronological recitation of events, The Square provides all the elements of a great movie: compelling, complex characters; a propulsive and unpredictable plot; a succession of eye-popping images; and, most important, an emotional core that connects with our own inner lives and gives the movie its universal appeal."

As confirmed by Stephen Holden at The New York Times: "[The Square] puts you in the center of the action to the extent that the protesters' passion is so contagious, it seems to leap off the screen and into your heart."

The Egyptian Revolution has been an ongoing rollercoaster over the past two and a half years. From the 2011 overthrow of a 30-year dictator Hosni Mubarak, through military rule, and culminating with the forced military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in the summer of 2013, The Square follows a group of Egyptian activists as they battle leaders and regimes, and risk their lives to build a new society of conscience. As immersive as the 2011 documentary Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad, and the Politician might have been in its cinematic aesthetics, The Square proceeds beyond where that documentary concludes to provide an unfolding historical context and a much-needed human face to these remarkable events. As Steven Erickson phrased it for Fandor's Keyframe: "Several early documentaries about the Arab Spring were hampered by a triumphant tone that now seems premature and short-sighted. The Square, which follows Egyptian protests over the course of two years, takes the opposite tack. Profiling a group of activists from varying ideological backgrounds, it shows a maddening situation in which a permanent revolution has become necessary."

The Square had its World Premiere at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for World Cinema, Documentary. Due to the ongoing nature of the Egyptian Revolution, Noujaim updated the ending of the film over the summer of 2013. The film subsequently won the People's Choice Award for Documentary at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, becoming the first film to win the Audience Award at both festivals. Dave Hudson rounded up the critical response, first from its Sundance win, then from its appearance at the New York Film Festival, and then at the International Documentary Association Awards, where The Square won Best Feature. More reviews can be found at the film's website. Most recently, The Square has made the Academy Awards® short list for Best Documentary Feature. It's also the first film to be picked up for distribution by Netflix.

Jehane Noujaim.  Photo: Ahmed Hassan
Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim has worked on various documentaries in both the Middle East and the United States. Before graduating from Harvard, she was awarded the Gardiner Fellowship for Mokattam, an Arabic film she directed about a garbage-collecting village near Cairo, Egypt. Jehane then joined the MTV News and Documentary Division as a segment producer for the documentary series Unfiltered. She soon left her position at MTV to produce and direct the feature documentary, Startup.Com (2001), which won the DGA and IDA awards for best director. Jehane continued to work on numerous documentaries as a cinematographer including: Down From the Mountain (2000), Only the Strong Survive (2002), and Born Rich (2003), before directing Control Room in 2004. The film was met with critical acclaim and won Jehane the coveted TED Prize in 2006, previously awarded to Bono and President Clinton. Jehane has continued to work in the U.S. and in the Middle East on films as an executive producer for such films as Encounter Point (2006) and Budrus (2009). She has also co-directed Egypt: We Are Watching You, which premiered as one of the ten films in the Why Democracy Series focusing on contemporary democracy around the globe. In 2012, she co-directed Rafea: Solar Mama, an award-winning film about a Jordanian woman who travels to India with the dream of becoming a solar engineer. The Square is her fifth feature-length documentary.

Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America
Karim Amer 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. On January 28, 2011, Karim joined his fellow Egyptians in Tahrir Square to fight for democratic rights for his country. Karim quickly understood that his most valuable contribution to the revolution and the building of the country would be to create a platform for debate, discussion and the spreading of important ideas. In effect, Karim was focused on providing a space where the Tahrir square conversation could continue for generations to come—online and in the form of weekly debates. In order to do this, Amer created and co-founded two initiatives for Egypt: Gessoor, a nonpartisan group of concerned Egyptian citizens that offer a platform for productive political and socio-economic discourse by providing a variety of tools to Egyptian youth; and Dostour 2011(Constitution 2011), the first independent stage in Tahrir Square. Karim met Jehane Noujaim in Tahrir and agreed to assist her in making sure that a documentary chronicling the story of this incredible moment in history would be made to show the world the truth of the events that had unfolded.

The Square will have a multiplatform release on January 17, 2014, opening theatrically in select cities—including the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco, California—and available for streaming to Netflix subscribers. The Roxie screening will be co-hosted by the International Socialist Organization and co-sponsored by the Arab Resource Organizing Center and the Arab Cultural & Community Center. After the film's 6:45 screening on Wednesday, January 22 , there will be a skyped Q&A with Mostafa Ali, a journalist for Ahram Online and member of Egypt's Revolutionary Socialists.

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Michael Guillén: Your beginnings and how you grew into this project?

Jehane Noujaim: I grew up in Cairo. I grew up about ten minutes away from Tahrir Square. I was born to an American mother and an Egyptian father; they met in Boston. I went away to college but constantly came back to visit my family in Cairo. I made a film in 2007 called Egypt, We Are Watching You, which was about three women who were fighting for political change in Egypt. The film came out on BBC, but I'd been following what was going on with the protest for the last six years or so. At the end of 2010, Tunisia had exploded, a lot of Egyptians were saying, "If Tunisia could change their country, why can't we?"

There was a young man named Khaled Saeed who you saw at the very beginning of the film who had been arrested and badly tortured by the police, and a Facebook page had been created that asserted that such abuse by police should not be happening because "we are all Khaled Saeed." Every year on the 25th of January, Egyptians celebrate Police Day. And the reason why people came in such vast numbers to Tahrir Square on January 25, 2011 was basically to say, "No! We will not be treated like this."

I had a decision to make: whether to stay in Egypt (since I was there at this time) or accept an invitation to Davos, which I thought would be an interesting place to be because all the leaders of government, the top dignitaries of Egypt, were going to be there. I got there and, of course, nobody showed up because the streets of Cairo were exploding. I was completely in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to get back to Egypt as quickly as possible. I got on the first plane I could. I went through London and picked up the Canon cameras we used in the film because they didn't look like video cameras. All the camera equipment that looked like video cameras were being confiscated at the airport. I arrived at the airport and 20 minutes after landing was stopped by military at checkpoint. The car was searched by plainclothesmen—I wasn't sure who they were—and they found 10 copies of my previous film Egypt, We Are Watching You. Not the best title for a film being found by military intelligence as a country is exploding. So they took me in for questioning. I tried to destroy the DVD, but people who were cleaning the bath room found it, so I came clean. I said, "Look, I make films about people who I think are brave and doing things that should be shared with the world. And I am about to go to Tahrir Square to make this film." Ultimately, they let me go. I went directly to the Square and there found this incredible, magical place where—for the first time—men and women, secular and religious, from all different classes, were speaking to each other. I had grown up in Egypt at a time when people would be afraid to speak about politics to each other. And now here they all were speaking to each other. I saw and wanted to share that beauty. So that's how I started. Then I met the entire crew in the Square, because everybody was there. All of the characters we met in the first 18 days before Mubarak stepped down.

Karim Amer: I came down to the Square as a protester. Actually, a skeptical protester. I'm Egyptian American and I grew up between Cairo and Miami, Florida. Jehane and I had marched and protested in this country against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; but, I never really felt that our protests amounted to much impact. That made me skeptical of the protest in Egypt where we didn't have America's legacy of the 1960s. We didn't have the legacy that empowered the people. We didn't have these stories. We didn't have a Rosa Parks. We didn't have these moments that you could look up to. I thought, "If our protest didn't work in the U.S., how the hell would it have an impact in Egypt?" Thank God I was completely wrong!

I went down to the Square like so many other people and saw all this magic. I saw this moment where—for the first time—people weren't scared anymore. They recognized this moment in history: "This is it!" The feeling was, "You either take me and my grandkids and my great grandkids because we're going to be stuck in this mess forever or we take a stand now and say, 'We're not going to compromise on our freedom. We're not going to compromise on our principles. We're going to make change.' "

As a protester, I met Jahane in the Square. I had set up an open mic stage. There was a Muslim Brotherhood stage and a left wing party stage and we set up the first nonpolitical stage. It ended up becoming a sort of poetry stage where a person could have five minutes to say whatever they wanted to the entire Square; kind of like a Hyde Park thing. Most people would read poetry. Jahane and her crew started filming from our stage. Then she started trying to follow me as a character, and I was like: "I don't want to be a character in your movie; but, I'll help you produce it." So that's how it started for me. Then I met the whole crew in the Square.

Guillén: Can you speak a bit to how you assembled your cast of characters? One of the strengths of your film is that you use a handful of personalities to express evolving points of view, if dissimilar ideologies. How did you develop these character narratives over such a length of time?

Noujaim: Well, the film gods were with us, which is why we met such incredible people. In the first 18 days, so quickly, it didn't take long to meet people and find them. But we really wanted these characters to be people that were using the Square. That was very important to us because we felt that we were hitting on the zeitgeist of the time. There are squares all around the world and people who have been using squares—as public spaces—as political tools for change.

It's very simple actually choosing characters. They're people that you want to spend time with. People that challenge you, surprise you, that you would like to be close to, that you feel will take you on an interesting journey, that you're constantly curious about, that you wake up wanting to be with and wanting to film, because—if you're curious about their opinion and they're teaching you something—the thinking is that they'll probably be interesting to an audience.

Ahmed Hassan, courtesy of Noujaim Films
In terms of the individual characters, I first met Ahmed Hassan. Ahmed was this joyful guy who was incredibly street smart. He had a wisdom about what was happening. Here was a guy who had grown up selling lemons, his mother was illiterate and sold vegetables, but he's also someone who attracts people. He would start to have a conversation in the Square and, after 5 minutes, 50 people will be around him listening to him and asking questions. We knew we wanted to follow him.

I met Magdy Ashour because he was literally sleeping in the tent next door to our's and he was somebody who had been 25 years with the Muslim Brotherhood. I had never spent much time with somebody from the Brotherhood; but, he was so open to having conversations with people who had vastly different views than he did and we thought his would be a fascinating story to follow.

Khalid Abdalla & Ahmed Hassan, courtesy of Noujaim Films
Khalid Abdalla was somebody who I met through Aida Elkashef. I knew Aida—the young girl with the red glasses—from my previous film and she introduced me to Khalid and Cressida Trew. Khalid was able to be incredibly articulate about what was happening during very confusing times. I think that's partly because his father and his grandfather had all been activists in Egypt. Both of them had been jailed.

Ragia Omran is the human rights lawyer who we're making a film about separately. We wanted to have more of her in the film but most of her life has been spent in jails and prisons and police stations getting people out and, so, she wasn't present in the Square so much. But I've known her since kindergarten and she's gotten me out of prison three times. She's an amazing person. She was just awarded the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award in Washington. She's one of these people for whom every last person counts. When I was arrested for the longest period of time, 3 days, she was there the entire time. Everybody got out. They let 300 people out but there were still two minors left. She sent messengers to find the parents of the minors to come to the prison. It was Thanksgiving 2011. My mother made a big Thanksgiving dinner, everyone came over, but Ragia stayed at the prison, refusing to leave and basically saying, "If I don't stay here and wait for the parents to come, these parents will come and be told by the police that their kids were setting fire to police cars and throwing Molotov cocktails, they'll be beaten up and never go down to the Square to protest again. If I wait for the parents and tell them what really happened, then they'll be kids who will be saved and know the right way." So for Ragia, every last person she cares about.

Ramy Essam, courtesy of Noujaim Films
Amer: In terms of where the characters are now, Ahmed has learned how to film. In Tahrir Square the camera was his weapon and he's now become quite talented in using it. He actually gets jobs in Egypt as a shooter on all kinds of ads. He's also filming with Khalid's alternative media collective providing constant updates on what's really happening on the ground. Magdy is in a very tough situation because he has five kids, is unemployed, has many health complications from even before the Revolution, and is now on the run because the government has made the Brotherhood illegal. He's become a pariah. We spoke with him last night. He's in a difficult situation but we're trying to help him get through it. The rest of the characters are still continuing. Egypt recently placed a kind of memorial in the Square but it was a complete farce of what these events were about so Ramy Essam, the singer, and a bunch of guys went down and painted it and read. They said, "This is a memorial made of blood and not made of anything else until you start putting the people who committed these crimes on trial." So now there's a warrant out for Ramy's arrest. He just wrote a song about it because he doesn't really care.

That's how this movement has been taking place. We didn't pick the characters; they picked to be characters by their action. These were the people who continued coming back to the Square. Despite coming from completely different walks of life and backgrounds, economic levels and religious identities, what connects these characters is that all of them are unwilling to compromise on their principles. All of them have an understanding that what is happening in Egypt is not a transition period, it is a founding period. During a founding period you cannot compromise on your principles because every inch you fight for today will be worth miles in the future. It's the infrastructure of a new nation. That's what brings them all together.

Especially Khalid, who doesn't have to be there. He's a successful Hollywood actor. He was in The Kite Runner and The Green Zone. He could be with us here; but, he's there because he realizes that—if people like him aren't involved; if people who don't need to be there aren't involved—then the change isn't going to get the kind of attention it deserves. It's not going to be as full-encompassing.

Guillén (via Joe Loree): Did you use much acquired footage? Or was all this shot by you and your crew?

Noujaim: All of it was shot by us, except for the footage you see of tanks running over protesters. That was cell phone footage. There were four of us shooting: myself, Cressida Trew—who was actually Khalid Abdalla's wife. She wanted to be a part of the film and we thought, "You can go home with Khalid and be in the bedroom while he's figuring out his problems with what's happening on the street." That's why we have such intimate footage of Khalid. Cressida was with him all the time. I'm not sure if—when Khalid agreed to be in the film—he agreed to his wife following him home with a camera; but, it was great for the film.

Ahmed Hassan, courtesy of Noujaim Films
Within the film, one of the main characters Ahmed is taught by our main director of photography Muhammad Hamdy how to use the camera. Most of the front line footage where you see guns shooting at you is Ahmed's footage. He continues to film today, though he had never used a camera before. Hamdy, who was the most experienced and a great director of photography, met us in the Square and said, "Your white balance is all wrong. Your shutter speeds are wrong. You don't know how to use these cameras. I need to teach you." So we sat in the tent and he taught us all how to use our cameras and he became our DP.

Amer: Mind you, of course, that Jahane never takes credit herself. She actually shot the majority of the film. Some of the most intimate and emotional character moments are always her's. We need to give her props on that side. Including the fact that she was many times the only woman in the Square with a camera. It's very difficult to produce a film when your director doesn't understand the word fear or danger and gets arrested three times in the making of it.

We filmed over 1600 hours of material. We have enough to make multiple mini-series; but, it wasn't just about that, the shooting wasn't just about making a film, sometimes we would literally be the only cameras in the Square. Why people were filming so passionately is because there was an alternative narrative that was being built outside the Square. Here you had this story that we all wanted to feel was the revolution: 18 days, the dictator's gone, we can all go home and everything's fantastic. But less than a month later, Ramy Essam, the singer of the revolution, is tortured in the Egyptian Museum and it's nowhere to be seen or heard. It's not on television. It's not reported anywhere. That's when we knew that there was a story within the Square that was very different from the reality being shown outside the Square. That's when we started this process of filming everything we could.

Our materials have been used in court cases as people's evidence. We've been giving footage to all the media outlets so that, for example, in the film when you see the image of the body being dragged in the Square, that was shot by Cressida, uploaded by Khalid her husband, and then given out to all the main international news agencies. When that footage got played by the international news agencies, the Egyptian media had to play it and had to admit what was happening. That's been the way in which power has been held accountable and how this whole movement has taken place: one photo, one image, one post, one tweet, can fight back against whatever government force is trying to hide the truth.

Guillén: For all practical effects, with Egypt being run by the military, how do you ever expect to screen The Square in Egypt?

Noujaim: Pressure. Continued pressure. And more pressure. The Square has already received so much support abroad. If it is nominated, it will be the first Egyptian film ever nominated. Everybody in Egypt knows what the Oscar® is. I grew up with a video store down the street and the videos in that store were all Oscar®-nominated films. When we told Ahmed about the short list, he said, "This is incredible because our story is now going to be on an international stage and our narrative will not be able to be whitewashed and wiped away." There is the saying that history is written by the victors, and there is an attempt by the army to whitewash everything that has happened. Our argument to them is to continue to say, "All of this footage is up on line and what you don't see is the struggle that the Egyptian people have been through in order to get to where we are today. Any country around the world that has gone through similar change, it's crucial to be able to look back to evaluate the mistakes and successes you've had in order to move forward." That's what we're saying.

As I say all of this, my own family keeps telling me there is no way we'll be able to show this film in Egypt; but, I do think we've made an incredible stride in continuing to push. As we speak, we are showing it to members who are writing the constitution. We're showing it to the Egyptian Consul on Foreign Relations on January 27. If all else fails, we'll be on blow-up screens on the streets of Egypt and USPs.

Amer: The thing is that it's culture that's guiding the way in Egypt today, right? As long as we look at the revolution as the successes and failures of a political timeline of who wins an election or who loses an election, then we're only looking at one dimension of what this revolution really is. This revolution is not just about the ability to organize politically; that's one continuum. This revolution is about the shift of consciousness in culture and education, in gender lines, and in the role of religion in society. What cannot be stopped is art and the cultural space. If they try to block the truth, people will take photos and upload them. If they take the internet down, we'll draw on the walls. That's how the future of Egypt is being shaped by a new youth who are no longer willing to be stuck in that old story, whether it's the military or the Brotherhood or whatever other group will try to come and clamp down on freedom of expression. We're going to get the film out there and we have to believe in the unbelievable. That's what allowed this whole change to happen. Who would have thought a few protesters coming down to the street could get rid of a 30-year dictator?

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