Making a Film About a Revolution Without a Resolution

Jehane Noujaim discusses the trials involved in filming "The Square," about the Egyptian protest.

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As Jan. 25, 2011, approached, Jehane Noujaim had a decision to make.

The Egyptian-American filmmaker – whose 2007 film "Egypt We Are Watching You" examined three Egyptian women who formed a pro-democracy group – could either go to Davos - the elite, annual ideas forum in Switzerland - where she was scheduled to participate on a number of panels about the political unrest across the Middle East and North Africa. Or she could go to Tahrir Square in Cairo, where many of her Egyptian friends would be, as plans for a demonstration against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's regime on National Police Day had spread across social media.

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"I flew to Davos because I thought, 'OK, this is not going to be just one day. If it's something, if it's something that's lasting, it's going to continue,'" Noujaim says. She regretted the decision upon reaching Switzerland, as most of the other big names from Egypt were no-shows. But she was correct on her latter point. The Egyptian revolution would still be going on when she did arrive in Cairo and for many months to come. In many ways it continues, even as the film she made "The Square," is will be released on Netflix Friday.

"The Square," which Thursday was named a nominee for the best documentary feature Oscar, follows the Egyptian revolution from the perspective of the protestors. It offers a first-hand, on-the-ground account starting from initial demonstrations in Tahrir Square and how they progressed, as the Mubarak was forced to step down and the protest movement splintered in the power vacuum.

There are no talking heads or omniscient narrators here. 

(Ahmed Hassan/Netflix)

The story of "The Square" is told in coffee shop conversations among protestors, in YouTube videos calling for action and in the violence that often swept the square, as seen by a few key characters.

"If you want to make a film that will appeal to people far outside of Tahrir, far outside of Egypt, you need to find people who an audience will personally relate to and connect to," Noujaim says of her decision to frame "The Square" this way. "I make character-driven films so I started looking for characters."

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Even after Noujaim decided to leave Davos for Cairo, getting her camera into Tahrir was no guarantee. Her baggage was searched by plain-clothed military officers soon after her arrival. When Noujaim was forced to come clean about her intentions (her interrogators found DVD copies of "Egypt We Are Watching You" that she tried to dispose of in the bathroom), she asked if she could interview them for her film. They turned her down, but ultimately let her go and to Tahrir Square Noujaim went.                       'The Square' director Jehane Noujaim. (Ahmed Hassan/Netflix)

Noujaim settled on her four main characters: Khalid, a camera-ready actor ("Kite Runner") and son of an Egyptian scholar; Ahmed, a passionate, working-class young man who looks no older than a teenager; Magdy, a sympathetic and pragmatic member of the Muslim Brotherhood who befriends the more secular-minded protestors; and Ramy, an amateur musician whose songs become the anthems of the protest movement.

"The Square" follows them as they come together across generational, class and even political lines in their efforts bring down Mubarak. However, it watches as those bonds fall apart in the political turmoil that follows, and that's not to mention the danger, police brutality and even torture they endure in the name of a free Egypt.

"It's the most difficult thing in the world to be following characters who you care about and also a subject that you care about go through such devastating losses and stick a camera in their faces at the same time," Noujaim says. "You know you have to do it because those are the moments that are these turning points that are very revealing about the story."

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Noujaim thought she had finished the film once the democratically-elected Mohamed Morsi had replaced Mubarak's regime; she even screened a version of it at 2013's Sundance Film Festival. Not long after, she heard that her friends were heading back to Tahrir Square to protest what they saw to be a power grab by Morsi, so she too returned to continue filming.