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‘The Square’ shows Arab Spring at street level

No one has captured the Arab Spring with so much ambition as Jehane Noujaim

  • From left, Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer from the film "The Square," pose for a portrait during the 2013 SundaImage Credit: AP
  • A scene from "The Square"Image Credit: Supplied

The bullets and tear-gas pellets were flying at Jehane Noujaim, but instead of scrambling backward with the rest of the Cairo protesters, the filmmaker walked forward into the smoky haze, where hundreds of gas mask-clad soldiers waited. Her camera in hand, Jehane approached one officer and asked for an interview. To her surprise, he granted it. But a few minutes later another soldier in a ski mask spotted her. Yelling to a crowd of policemen that the Egyptian-American director was a US spy, the soldier threw Jehane into the swarm of cops, who grabbed her camera and corralled her into a paddy wagon.

For the next few days in November 2011, the police “disappeared” Jehane — moving her from jail cell to jail cell at prisons a few hours outside Cairo. Her friends and crew waited on tenterhooks. Jehane mostly kept calm.

“My mom said I lack a proper sense of fear,” said the filmmaker, 38, offering a surprisingly sunny laugh as she recounted the story. Redemption came unexpectedly: A tweet about Noujaim’s disappearance alerted a lawyer who happened to be visiting the jail she was in. Recognising her from a photo in the tweet, the lawyer pressed guards to let her go by threatening to organise a protest outside the prison. The next day Jehane was back in Tahrir Square, camera in tow. Over the last two years, a number of documentaries have tried to capture the history-making chaos of the Arab Spring. But perhaps none has done so with as much ambition — or risk to life and limb — as “The Square,” a new film from Jehane, director of the 2004 documentary “Control Room” (about Arab media coverage of the Iraq war).

“The Square”, which made its premier at the Sundance Film Festival, chronicles the volatile life of protesters in Tahrir Square. Jehane and her crew camped out there with their cameras from early 2011, when demonstrations against longtime President Hosni Mubarak started, through the army’s takeover and then well into 2012 and the ascent of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The film has generated strong response at Sundance and caught the fancy of Hollywood personalities such as Sean Penn and Ezra Miller, who have expressed interest in supporting it. Arrested and beaten several times while filming protests against the military, Jehane — who was born in Washington, raised in Egypt and Kuwait and educated at Harvard — offers an intimate look at the revolution and its bloody aftermath. As Egypt marked the two-year anniversary of the start of its uprising on Friday, “The Square” is both a demonstration of the dangers of freely voicing opinions in the new Middle East, and an example of how documentaries might offer a ray of hope.

“We originally wanted to make a movie that started with the downfall of a president and ended with the election of a president,” Jehane said in an interview in a condo in this ski town, where the gravest danger most visitors face is being left off a party guest list. “But we ended up looking at the downfall of the president, then at the next group that tried to stop the revolution — the army — and then all the issues with the Muslim Brotherhood.”

“The Square” is told through the eyes of several liberal revolutionaries and one dissident member of the Brotherhood, and particularly through actor Khalid Abdullah, the charismatic Cairo-based star of Hollywood films such as “The Kite Runner” and “Green Zone.” Abdullah is seen putting his professional life on hold to fight the military in the streets and on the web. (Jehane does not appear in the movie, preferring to let her subjects take centre stage.)

“One of the things we wanted to show is that people are willing to give up everything — jobs, school — and get a different kind of education in the square,” said Karim Amer, the film’s producer, sitting next to Jehane in the interview. “And it’s a huge education: You learn law to know your rights, you learn history not to repeat the mistakes of past revolutions, and unfortunately you learn medicine because of all the violence and death.”

In an industry where words such as “brave” are freely tossed around, “The Square” soberly redefines the term. The movie also bolsters the claim that, as international media bureaus are shrinking, local documentarians with hand-held cameras are filling the void. Among the journalistically resonant scenes in “The Square,” which is seeking US distribution, are up-close shots of army officers violently clearing protesters out of the streets, a popular revolutionary singer badly tortured by the military, and a thug dragging a beaten protester across the pavement. (The last clip went viral, landing on numerous news programmes and bringing attention to the plight of protesters.)

Though the stories in “The Square” are personal, the film tells a larger tale of the movement itself, slipping in context about such subjects as the propagandistic ways of state media, or about how, in the filmmakers’ view, the Muslim Brotherhood cut deals with the military that led to reprisals against the revolutionaries.

“Making this movie has given me a sense of outrage,” said Jehane. “Because if things like this happen to someone like me who has a voice, what’s happening to all the people who don’t?”.

Amer, who is also Egyptian American, recognises that “The Square” intentionally blurs the line between activism and moviemaking. “It’s a movement first and a film second, which is why we kept going back to the square even when it was dangerous or we already had a lot of footage,” he said.

Cameras, he and Jehane noted, were regularly seized during the military’s sweeps. “At least I’ve gotten a lot less precious about my footage,” Jehane said.

The director and her crew have recorded more than 1,000 hours of footage. They say they may cut a second film from the footage that examines the revolution through the eyes of the military and Brotherhood leaders, about whom Jehane is abundantly sceptical. But a return to Tahrir with cameras is unlikely for the moment. “We had to stop the film because we can’t just keep shooting,” Jehane said. “But it’s a story that doesn’t really have an ending.”