The new documentary The Square — set in Cairo's Tahrir Square — is a gripping, visceral portrait of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and its tumultuous aftermath.
The film puts the audience directly in the middle of the protests, and follows the lives of several young revolutionaries over the two and half years since. It charts their journey from the early euphoria of victory to the depths of despair as those victories unravel amid violent clashes and profound political confrontations among the secular revolutionaries, the Muslim Brotherhood and the military.
The film's director, Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, tells NPR's Robert Siegel that shooting the film was a real group effort.
"The entire team met in the square in 2011, and we all shot various parts of the film," she says. "We ended up with about 1,600 hours [of footage] and out of that made a hour-and-a-half film."
On being told at the Sundance Film Festival to go back and keep filming
People thought we were crazy, actually, because we did show it at [the] Sundance Film Festival. But as we were on the way to Sundance, our characters, all of them, were back in the streets fighting because President Morsi had pushed a constitution through and was claiming dictatorial powers. So it became a much more interesting story because it showed that the people that we followed and the people of Egypt were not going to rest. They were going to fight against fascism, whether the face of fascism was Mubarak or the army or the Muslim Brotherhood.
On telling this large story solely through the eyes of certain characters
The way that I make films is that I tell the story through the eyes of characters. And so if you follow the characters' journey, there are obviously things that you are leaving out. But the hope with a film like this is [to] make people feel like they've had a glimpse and really experienced revolution.
People don't get to experience what we've experienced or had a glimpse of the past couple of years. And once people are able to experience that, there are thousands of books out there that you can continue to read and gain an education on what's happening in Egypt. This isn't an interview film — we didn't go through an interview [with] every, you know, leader across Egypt on what was happening. We decided to really take it from the perspective of these young revolutionaries.
On how she felt about the revolutionaries she followed
I think you have to fall in love with your characters. ... You never know whether the film is ever going to get out there or whether anyone's going to see it. So you have to really like the people that you're following. You have to feel like you're learning something from them, that they're surprising you, that they're taking you to a place where you've never been, in the most enlightening kind of way.
So when I met Ahmed [Hassan], for example — he's the lead character in the film — I mean, he's one of the most charismatic, joyful, pure personalities that I've ever met. You talk to him, you just smile. You want to be with him. You want him to take you through this world.
On the revolutionaries' notion that 'We don't need leaders, we need a conscience'
It's something that we've talked about so many times. ... I've had these conversations with Ahmed, and what he says is, 'We need to create a society of consciousness, and out of that a good leader will emerge.' What Ahmed says in the film — and he's half joking — but he says, you know, 'I think one of the greatest achievements of this revolution is that you have these kids playing this game. That people demand the fall of the regime ... and some of them play Brotherhood and some of them play police and some of them play army.'
The Egypt that I grew up in, you could not have a conversation, a frank, political conversation with taxi drivers or different people in the street. People were worried about who is listening. Is this secret police? I shouldn't really say this because I could be carted away for this. And so the fact that people were standing in a square, talking about a future of a country that they wanted to create, that's a huge, huge shift.
And I think that that's incredibly important, whether these particular kids are able to stay in the street — they're not going to stay in the street. At a certain point it needs to go from the street to a constitution, [and then] to the ability to elect leaders that represent them. But until that constitution is written, and until there are the checks and balances that are supposed to exist — right now the street has been the ballot box.
And that leads to a very tumultuous — you know, you can't just, you can't lead by the streets forever, right? But that is the last two-and-a-half years that we've faced. And that's what we wanted to show.