As Egyptians mark the second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, we look at a new documentary that captures the ongoing protest movement in Egypt well after the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. “The Square” follows a group of activists as they risk their lives in the uprising that ousted Mubarak only to face further threats under the transitional military regime. We’re joined by the film’s Egyptian-American director, Jehane Noujaim, at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Noujaim’s previous work includes the famed Al Jazeera documentary, “Control Room.” [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. And we are here again at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. And a new documentary has captured the immediacy and intensity of the Egyptian revolution. It’s called The Square. In a moment, we’ll be joined by the film’s director, Jehane Noujaim, but first, part of the film’s trailer.
UNIDENTIFIED EGYPTIAN 1: [translated] You won’t believe what happened. I still don’t believe it.
VOICEOVER: January 2011, Cairo.
MAJ. GEN. ISMAIL ETMAN: [translated] President Mubarak has decided to step down and entrust his powers to the Army. We all know the magnitude of this decision.
VOICEOVER: Eight months later. This is our story.
UNIDENTIFIED EGYPTIAN 2: The first one was really about breaking something. This one is about building something.
UNIDENTIFIED EGYPTIAN 3: [translated] Today, power in this country comes from the square.
KHALID ABDALLA: Tahrir has become the place in which we gather, the place in which we’re able to have a voice, and that’s carrying our dreams.
UNIDENTIFIED EGYPTIAN 4: What people are fighting centers right now on the army. There’s no doubt about it, because there they remain in power.
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the new documentary The Square, by the Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim. In 2004, she directed the film Control Room about Al Jazeera.
Well, Jehane, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us.
JEHANE NOUJAIM: It’s great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of—you have been filming for what? Two years now?
JEHANE NOUJAIM: Yes, that’s correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you started this project.
JEHANE NOUJAIM: I guess, similar to Sharif. You know, Sharif’s Egyptian; I’m Egyptian. We all felt like we had to be back there when the uprising started to happen. And I had made a film in 2007, actually, called Egypt We Are Watching You, which was about a few women who had been fighting for freedom of speech and against corruption in Egypt. And so, I was very well aware of the movement that had been happening for a long time in the streets. And when it started to gather power and force at the beginning of 2011, this was a very exciting time. I went back.
And I met my crew in the square. All of us met in the square. And we basically started filming. We had five cameras in the square, led by an incredible director of photography, and we began following five characters from very different backgrounds, wanting to follow people who were putting everything on the line, their life on the line, to fight for what they believed in and to fight for change in their country. And two years later, I think the story still continues, but we had this chance to come to Sundance to show the film, and so we took it.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about some of the people who you covered. In December 2011, the violence breaking out in Tahrir, one of several hundred peaceful protesters staging a sit-in outside the Parliament building was reportedly detained and beaten by troops. Up to 14 people were killed, hundreds injured, over three days of clashes. Let’s go to a clip of The Square that explained what happened. And a warning to our TV viewers around the world, some of these images are graphic.
JONATHAN RUGMAN: These battles have been raging not for hours, but for days.
AMY GOODMAN: Up to 14 people have been killed, hundreds injured. A video uploaded yesterday on YouTube has circulated widely, provoked outrage at the extent of police brutality.
UNIDENTIFIED EGYPTIAN 5: [translated] The gas enters, and then the people outside stampeded into the field hospital, because they were dying. Even the doctors were dying from the gas. It’s black. Nerve gas, I think. It makes you collapse and convulse. I filmed, but then I fell down. I was shaking and suffocating. Everyone was, too. And the patients have to be moved, or they will die.
REPORTER: There were clashes between security forces and protesters, which resulted in the death of many throughout the past days. General Tantawi denied that they had fired any live bullets.
MAJ. GEN. ISMAIL ETMAN: [translated] Glorious people of Egypt. What we are witnessing now on the streets and television are just accusations attempting to smear the image of the military. The armed forces has decided to go ahead with parliamentary elections as planned. And presidential elections will take place before the end of June 2012.
KHALID ABDALLA: [translated] It’s the first time he dares speak to us!
[in English] There are as many people here as there were on the day Hosni Mubarak left town. We got here in the space of three or four days, to this number. There are people who’ve come from all over Egypt. There are people all over Egypt right now who are protests. There are people in Sinai, people in Suez, people in Asyut, people Alexandria, people in Mersa Matruh. People all over the country are fighting for the future right now. I have no fear about the future of this country. I have fear for a future of this country which includes the military and a military that wants to be above the rule of law, a military that wants to be above the Constitution, a military that doesn’t want to tell us how much money it is stealing from this country, a military that is receiving aid in the millions and billions from the U.S. and other governments.
[translated] The revolution is on again!
AMY GOODMAN: That is Jehane Noujaim’s new film, The Square, an excerpt. But it’s not just a film; it’s the real thing. And you’ve been doing this for two years. Talk us out of that.
JEHANE NOUJAIM: The clip you just saw, you see a few of our characters in it. And it was taking place during Mohamed Mahmoud, which, as you described, was a time when there was extreme police brutality and attacks by the army. And what happens during this time is that Khalid Abdalla, who I think you’ve had on the show before, who’s an actor but comes from a family who has been fighting for political change and reform in the country for a long time, he starts an organization called Mosireen, where he gets cameras out to people. And his wife, Cressida Trew, who’s actually one of our teammates on shooting the film, films the dragging of a body across the square, which was then uploaded on Mosireen, picked up by larger television stations. And you could see the power of social media, because people just came flooding down to the square. And that’s what happened. I mean, people are using their cameras, they’re uploading, and that’s bringing people down.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the people who worked on The Square is Sanaa El Seif. Now she’s 19 years old. Democracy Now!’s Sharif Abdel Kouddous interviewed her in 2011 about a month after the revolution. Sanaa helped to publish a newspaper, in defiance of laws requiring government permission, when she was 17 years old, in the square. And now I bumped to her—into her in Sundance as part of your team and asked her to talk about how it felt to go from printing this newspaper that brought out the voices of Tahrir when she was 17 to now, at 19, being an assistant editor of this film called The Square.
SANAA EL SEIF: It’s an amazing experience. And the best thing—the thing that makes me really respect Jehane and that made me want to work with her is that most of the cameras left the square after the stepdown. While—
AMY GOODMAN: The stepdown is when Mubarak was forced out.
SANAA EL SEIF: When Mubarak stepped down, yes. Everybody was talking all over the world, were talking about the Arab Spring, the Arab Spring, but all the cameras left, and we were left alone in the square. And the army was really vicious. And these cameras, this media—we didn’t get that media attention back, until like we lost like a huge number of people. It takes, like—if you have two people or three people dying in the square, the media is not going to be interested in that story. But if you have like a big massacre like Maspero, 28 people being crushed by army tanks, then now the media cares. I think if there had been much more media attention, it could have stopped the bloodshed. It’s possible.
The good thing about Jehane is that she’s the camera that stayed. And every time I would see her before, even before I started working with her, every time I would see her during clashes or during a clearing, I would be relieved that someone is still caring enough to stay here and document this. So when she told me to work with her, I didn’t think about it; I was like, “Definitely.”
AMY GOODMAN: Sanaa El Seif is now 19 years old, working with Jehane Noujaim on The Game [sic]. Final comments, Jehane, here in—
JEHANE NOUJAIM: On The Square.
AMY GOODMAN: On The Square.
JEHANE NOUJAIM: But Sanaa is one example of an incredible group of people that have come together, worked for free for the last two years. We needed to keep completely independent, even though we desperately needed financing. But now we have just launched the Kickstarter campaign to pay people back and to finish the film. And so, we are—we’re at the Kickstarter, at The Square at Kickstarter.com. And every dollar counts. So—
AMY GOODMAN: Well—
JEHANE NOUJAIM: Keep us independent. Don’t let us be hijacked. Thank you so much for having us.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Jehane Noujaim, I want to thank you very much for being with us. It’s great to see you again.
JEHANE NOUJAIM: Thank you. Thanks, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2004, she did the Control Room, which raged throughout the world, a film that certainly caught fire, and now The Square, that has premiered here at Sundance at the film festival in Park City, Utah.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to talk about a new remarkable dramatic film that premiered here called Fruitvale, about the police killing of Oscar Grant. Stay with us.