| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Jan 8 Three years after
Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim waded into Cairo's
Tahrir Square to document the early rumblings of revolution, the
army governs Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is back underground
and protesters are on trial.
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.
"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 the revolution.
"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 said.
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 Jan. 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 Jan. 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
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
"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