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Q&A With Filmmakers Behind Oscar-Nominated Tahrir Doc

Q&A With Filmmakers Behind Oscar-Nominated Tahrir Doc

On Thursday morning, a day before its release on Netflix, The Square was nominated for the Academy Award for best documentary. The film chronicles two and a half years of protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, following a handful of revolutionaries through triumphs, violence, and disappointments — among the cast of characters, there’s Ahmed, the charismatic young progressive; Khalid, the movie star who has returned home to support the revolution; Magdy, the conflicted member of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The movie is finished — though it was re-edited to include the protests that ousted President Mohamed Morsi in June and July — but the revolution is still a work in progress. Foreign Policy spoke to the movie’s director, Jehane Noujaim, and producer, Karim Amer, about the film, the censorship its faced in Egypt, and the future. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

FP: We’re now six months on from the point where the documentary ends. Has anything changed?

Karim Amer: I think that most people feel that the powder keg of the Egyptian street is about to explode once again. If you think about it, this revolution has really been about a fight between disorganized social movements and organized fascist movements. And that’s been a part of a global echo chamber of what’s been happening in squares across the world — Kiev, Cairo, Rio. There’s something shaping things, this people power trying to rewrite the social contract.

FP: What does that new contract look like in Egypt, and how do the last six months get you closer to that?

KA: The two main forces that people have been fighting against in Egypt are the military state, which is this military state that we’ve been living in since 1952, and the idea of creating a civil state, which the military has a role in but is not above the civil state. And the other is the fight against the overtaking of the revolution and the turning of the state into a religious state, which is also not something people in the country want. It’s a complicated space — both play the role of protector, one protects you in this life and one protects you during the afterlife, two very important protections for Egyptian people. June 30 will go down in history — and I’m talking about just that day, not what happened after, but that day when you had millions and millions of people in the street as has never happened before — as a day when Egyptians rewrote the role of religion in society and said, "This is not what we want." The idea of the separation of church and state which is something that this country cherishes so much was established.

The current constitution is not what we wanted, but at least it’s not a religious state. At least we’ve won that side of it. The thing is going to continue and the next thing is going to be the curbing of the military state and I think that that’s a long war. And we don’t want to destroy the military. When you live in a country that has mandatory conscription, the military is everyone’s uncle and father and brother, but we want to fight for that civil state that’s above everything else.

FP: If that’s the role of the military, what’s the role of the Muslim Brotherhood going forward?

KA: The Muslim Brotherhood is an important group in the country, I don’t deny that. Morsi got millions of votes, whether people want to say there was fraud or not doesn’t matter. They’re an important member of society, and I think that if they’re not included in the country, the process will fail. Every single time that you see one person coming to power and trying to take all the power for himself, the process will fail. It happened with Morsi, and it looks like it’s happening again now with the military.

These shouldn’t be looked at as failures of the revolution. This should be looked at as the revolution going into each sector of society to reconfigure it, if it can. Let’s look at religion and the Muslim Brotherhood and try to understand that space. Go through that experiment and have some successes and failures. Now, let’s do the same thing with the role of the military, let’s do the same thing with role of the judiciary, let’s do the same thing with education. That’s the process by which revolution happens.

FP: Magdy, one of the central characters you follow in the film, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and was at the sit-ins. Where is he now?

Jehane Noujaim: Magdy is representative of many people who were supported by the Brotherhood, believed in the Brotherhood because they were a religious organization, yet when they came to power started to have their doubts because they began to see the Brotherhood as just another corrupt political group making deals with the military. So once they were out in the open and once they started playing the political game the same as anyone else, they lost a great deal of power because they were no longer able to be this sort of underground potential savior.

Right now, he’s staying at a relative’s home. He said he and his brother were called by state security to have an "interview," and he said he’s not going because he’s not sure what’s going to happen. 

FP: You’ve updated the film once already. Are you going to update the movie again?

JN: The movie stands on its own. These films aren’t intended to be never-ending news series. Our film, we ended it before when Morsi was elected, but really that was the political storyline. When people were back in the streets prostesting against Morsi because he was using the tools of democracy to create a new dictatorship, all of our characters were on the journey of holding government accountable. And what did that mean? It became a much deeper, more interesting story, which is why we went back and continued filming. But where we’ve reached now, we’ve followed the character arc where they’ve all gotten to the place where they say, "We don’t know how long this is going to take, this is going to take a long time."

FP: There’s a moment in the film when Ahmed says that Egypt is "looking for a conscience."  What does that look like, and what will it take for Egyptians to agree on what an Egyptian conscience looks like?

KA: They’ll have to burn their hand first, as the expression goes in Arabic. They’ll have to learn from doing the wrong thing first. We had to go through the Muslim Brotherhood and see the first democratically elected president completely try to take over the country and forget about the process of democracy.

I think it’s important for the military to see they’re not Superman. And they’re going to fail improve the country economically and deliver the demands of the country. And once that’s gone, there’s nothing left. And I think people will come back around to realize that we all need each other. A functioning, healthy society needs to create that balance where different members of society are represented and feel accounted for and involved. And we need to protect the process.

JN: And what does a conscience mean? It’s a constitution that represents the rights of all people, a pluralistic constitution, and that’s what all of these failures will hopefully get to, eventually.

FP: In December, the film was slated to be shown at the Panorama Film Festival in Cairo, but at the last minute, it was canceled. How is the film faring in Egypt itself?

JN: The day before Panorama, we got a letter saying that we had gotten permission to show the film but that we still hadn’t gotten a letter for public release. So we had this difficult decision of whether to just show this film once in a wonderful, but quite exclusive, festival. It would be written about by journalists, but not seen by anyone the film actually represents, so we decided the right course of action was to continue waiting and doing everything we could to get permission for public release.

It’s a microcosm of what the activists have had to do and are still doing. How much do you work within the system to change something? Many have said, "You should show it in this small screening and hope you get a bigger screening." By going that way, you’re working with a system you don’t believe is the right system. At what point do you stand back and say it isn’t the right thing to show a movie about the revolution to a select group of people?

Ahmed, an activist in the film, says, "Stay in the States, keep talking to people, tell people you have to get this film nominated because it will make this film unstoppable in Egypt." And it’s a crucial time to release it, because it’s a time when the army authorities are trying to whitewash what happened.

FP: One of the most frequent critiques of the film is that it takes place almost entirely within Tahrir Square, and it gets trapped in that bubble. Why make that editorial choice to insulate it from the rest of Egyptian society?

JN: Karim and I actually ran into this issue at points during shooting, where we said, "Should we be helping them make messages that can be broadcast outside of the square?" Khalid says at one point, "We don’t have a foreign ministry. We’re not talking to the rest of Egypt," and at times the square feels so insular. We asked one of the protesters about this and what he said is, these movements and this ability to change don’t require the entire country to be involved in changing the country. And it’s never worked that way.

KA: Born there is a sense of agency. More than anything, that’s what protest movements are able to do. What that sense of agency does is it empowers the rest of the citizenry to feel we have a voice, we have a stake in this. The protest movement is not supposed to create the laws. The protest movement is not necessarily always supposed to turn into a political party.

JN: There are different roles for each member of society to play. If you look at the Civil Rights movement in this country, at the Black Panthers, they weren’t representative of the entire change movement. They were a particular strategy — the most extreme in some moments. How many Black Panthers ended up becoming politicians, becoming senators? Does that mean that they failed? That they didn’t shift the consciousness of the country? They did. Some people have issues with the film because we live in a fallacy of how change happens — that people come down, they talk to the regime, and they create democracy. It’s never happened that way.

If we were making a film about the entire Egyptian experience — then yeah, taking it from our perspective is very insular. But we don’t claim to not be insular. The name of the film is The Square. It’s about what happened in that square.

FP: Despite how difficult it has been for the activists, it’s a surprisingly optimistic film.

KA: What Ahmed reaches at the end is when he says that after going through this three-year experience, no political salvation is going to happen through this political process, the only way we can make the country is to look outside of the political process. The political process can only take you so far. What the film is saying is that, what was born in that square with those people who experienced that — they’re never going to give up. Regardless of who wins an election, what constitution passes or doesn’t pass, they’re never going to give up. The evidence of that is in three years, they’ve removed three regimes.