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Filmmakers try to shake ‘fairy tale story of change’ in documenting Egypt’s revolution

February 24, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
The Academy Award-nominated film “The Square” follows two and a half years of revolution in Egypt, centered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the uprising unfolded in 2011. Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner sits down with director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer to discuss the documentary, hopes held by the people they filmed and their wishes for Egypt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The resignation of the Cabinet from Egypt’s interim government today was just the latest turn in the tumultuous three years since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. Two Egyptian-American filmmakers charted much of that journey.

Chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner sat down with them recently.

MARGARET WARNER: The Oscar nominated documentary “The Square” tracks two and-a-half years of tumult in Egypt, from Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in 2011 through the 2012 end of direct military rule and the 2013 removal of elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi.

The film, which can’t we shown publicly in Egypt, tells the tale through six characters who met in Tahrir Square, especially Ahmed Hassan, a poor secular young revolutionary, and Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood father of four.

We sat down with director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer in Washington.

Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer, thank you so much and congratulations for being nominated.

JEHANE NOUJAIM, director, “The Square”: Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: So, when this uprising against Mubarak started in early 2011, what did you see in that moment that just impelled you to rush to the square and start filming?

JEHANE NOUJAIM: It was a magical moment.

And this is why I make films, because I see people that inspire me, surprise me, take me to a place I have never been before, and I want to share them with the world immediately. And we grew up in an Egypt where people were afraid to talk about how they felt about politics for fear of repercussion.

But here you had men, women, people of all different classes talking about and sharing dreams of the future for the very first time.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Karim, what is it that attracted you all particularly to two of your main characters, Ahmed Hassan, and Magdy Ashour, the young revolutionary and Muslim Brotherhood member?

KARIM AMER, producer, “The Square”: When I went down originally, I went down actually as a skeptic.

But when you meet people like Ahmed, who is so representative of so many young Egyptians who have lived all their lives feeling like their story had already been written for them, that they had no sense of empowerment, they had no sense of authorship for their future, and to feel that for the first time they could pen that future, that they could build the country of their dreams was an unbelievable feeling.

When you’re making a film like this that is a verite film, you don’t know what’s going to pan out. So their actions actually in the events is what ended up making them the characters. So it was Magdy, and when the Battle of Mohamed Mahmoud, which is one of the kind of main scene you see in the film where the Brotherhood didn’t participate and Magdy went against Brotherhood orders and joined the protest movement.

MARGARET WARNER: And he said, I’m staying here.

KARIM AMER: And he said, I’m staying here.

That moment made him much more compelling as a character, because, all of a sudden, he became someone who was conflicted between two sides.

MARGARET WARNER: I have to say at the end of the movie, I was left with a feeling of sadness, because the characters got on this sort of endless loop of unity and solidarity and expectation.

And they would topple a ruler, only to make room for the next despot. And then they would be angry and then they would rail and they would say, well, we’re going back to the streets. But it didn’t really get better.

JEHANE NOUJAIM:  I actually am left with a feeling of optimism.

And I will tell you why. Even though we’re in this very dark time in Egypt, and there are people being addressed — we have friends of ours in jail now — it’s one of the worst time for journalists — people on the ground, all of the characters will say, we have had to go through these mistakes. We had to go through the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, and the pendulum has swung the complete other direction now towards the military, right?

And ultimately I feel and I hope — and this is what our characters feel — that we will get to a point where we will be able to have a healthy country. I mean, I feel like it’s the civil rights movement of our time. And our characters are still on the front lines struggling for it.

KARIM AMER: We, as a society in Egypt, and the characters, we felt, all have to kind of free ourselves from this fairy tale story of change, that in 18 days people can go down for the first time in their lives, do the unbelievable, topple the dictator, and then democracy is just going to flourish.

And I think that we suffered from a problem that a lot of problem around the world actually are trapped in, which is this kind of story has changed that we’re told, which is more like change’s greatest hits, where we see kind of like the highlights of change throughout history.

So we see Gandhi liberating India, and we see Mandela ending apartheid, and we see Martin Luther King saying I have a dream, but we’re not willing to spend 20 years in jail with Mandela when he’s hopeless and no one believes in him. And what keeps me optimistic is that people like Ahmed and others in that square are no longer to be trapped, are unwilling to go back to the old narrative, the old story of Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: Yet doesn’t the success also depend on this generation of revolutionaries being willing to go the next step and do that hard, gritty of building political parties, running for office?

JEHANE NOUJAIM:  This was a time when we didn’t have a judiciary, we didn’t have a freedom of press, we didn’t have these pillars of democracy. Democracy is not only the ballot box. We didn’t have — and so people felt their only way of reaching people was the streets.

And I think that’s where they felt their role was at that time.

KARIM AMER: And for us as filmmakers, the climax happens in the first two minutes. The dictator fell.

Where are you going to go from there, you know? So I think that there is a lot of activity happening in Egypt. It may not all be manifesting itself into the political continuum, but there’s a lot of other spaces that are helping shape the future.

MARGARET WARNER: Jehane and Karim, thank you so much.


KARIM AMER: Thank you so much for having us. Thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: And good luck.

JEHANE NOUJAIM:  Thank you so much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Margaret also asked the filmmakers about a next chapter for the characters in the documentary, and you can see that extended interview on our home page.