From the 2011 overthrow of a 30-year dictator, through military rule, and culminating with the forced military removal of the Muslim Brotherhood president in July of this year, Jehane Noujaim’s (Control Room, riveting documentary The Square (Al Midan) takes viewers on an emotional roller coaster. Spending several years in the streets of Egypt with a crew she met among the protestors at Tahrir Square, Noujaim follows a group of Egyptian activists as they battle leaders and regimes and risk their lives in an impassioned attempt to build a new society of conscience. The battle is far from over in that country, but the ongoing story of the Egyptian Revolution is inspiring to anyone who believes in the fight against oppression. The activists profiled in the film include Khalid Abdalla, a prominent British-Egyptian actor (The Kite Runner, United 93), Ahmed Hassan, a young charismatic street revolutionary from a working-class neighborhood, and Magdy Ashour, a middle-aged father and member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Square also features Ragia Omran, a dynamic human rights lawyer, Ramy Essam, an artist who becomes the unofficial singer-songwriter of the revolution, and Aida El Kashef, a young filmmaker from Cairo who uses her camera as a weapon against injustice.

I sat down in Los Angeles with director Jehane Noujaim, producer Karim Amer, and actor/activist Khalid Abdalla to discuss this captivating documentary.

Danny Miller: I’ve been following what’s going on in Egypt for the past few years but I was amazed by how this film made me feel like I was a part of it. You take the audience on such an emotional journey, I can only imagine what it was like for all of you to be there as it was happening. As cliché and ridiculous as it sounds, I wanted to stand up at the end of the film and shout, “I am an Egyptian!”

jehanenoujaimJehane Noujaim: I’m so happy to hear that — we’ve seen the film have that effect on lots of people with no prior connection to Egypt. We had this wonderful editor who was about to direct an HBO film that he kept pushing back. At one point I overheard him on the phone with the people at HBO saying, “Look, I know we’ve been planning this for two years and I really want to direct it, but I just feel so connected to the Egyptian Revolution right now that I have to continue working on this film.” I was so touched when I heard that. His parents had been activists in the 1960s and he called the Egyptian Revolution the civil rights struggle of our time. We had another brilliant editor, a Brazilian guy named Pedro Kos, who ended up cutting the final version, who now considers himself an “honorary Egyptian” and has started learning Arabic.

When you first went to Egypt in 2011, you couldn’t have possibly known how any of this would play out. Did you just arrive in Tahrir Square one day and start shooting?

Yes, that was pretty much it! I’ve done a lot of work with the documentary filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker and he used to say to me, “Just keep shooting until you get bored!” Once you get bored, he said, you’re not filming anything an audience wants to watch. Pretty simple advice! In a case like this, you’re not really directing, you’re following — I think a lot of the directing happens in the editing room afterwards when you’re putting a story together. I went to Tahrir Square and in the first 18 days before Mubarak stepped down, I met all of the people who ended up leading us through this story. I also met my entire crew in the Square.

Khalid, was it always clear that you’d be one of the main subjects of the film instead of being involved in some other way?

khalidabdallaKhalid Abdalla: Not at the very beginning. One of the things that I discovered is that it’s much harder to be yourself in a documentary than it is to play a character in a fictional film! There are times when the camera around feels like an intervention — like it’s asking YOU to do something for IT. Whenever that started to happen, I would just run away. But as soon as they started putting together some of the footage, I think they realized I was definitely going to be a character in the film. So then I’d start getting all the calls from Jehane: “Hey, Khalid, what are you doing today?”

Jehane: (Laughs.) I started making those calls to Aida, too, and she finally got fed up and said to me, “Don’t you follow my Twitter account? Just check that and you’ll know what I’m doing every minute!” That’s when I realized the power of social media in this revolution!

Ahmed is such an amazing character in the film — he’s so incredibly articulate. Is he typical of many of the young activists in Tahrir Square?

I fell in love with him the minute I met him in the Square. Ahmed has always been great at engaging people and getting them to talk about important things, but you really see him grow up in the course of the film. At the beginning he seems more like a boy.

Khalid: I think the revolution has been an extraordinary political education for all of us. If you think about it, it’s now been about the length of a college degree! It’s interesting because the space people have in their lives to discuss issues of this magnitude is usually pretty small. Maybe you have a conversation every few weeks, or if you’re really into it, every day after the news. But in Egypt the entire country has been talking about this almost exclusively for over two and a half years! The amount of time that people have invested in these ideas is huge. I do think Ahmed is representative of many people in his generation who feel that they have a right and an obligation to speak up.

karimamerKarim Amer: I think Ahmed’s journey is very representative of the process of discovery that many Egyptians went through during the revolution. They started from almost a place of a naiveté — which was actually an advantage early on because if the people were politically well educated at the beginning, they probably never would have gone down to the Square. These people believed in something that no political analyst could have ever predicted or would have thought was feasible so a certain amount of naiveté was quite useful.

It was heartbreaking to watch all the hope and excitement in the beginning of the film change to such bitter disillusionment so fast.

I think the story we were telling in this film became a story of two betrayals — first by the army and then by the Muslim Brotherhood — betrayals where political ideologies were used to hijack the revolution. The resilience that Ahmed shows in the face of all that is amazing and gives hope to the continuing spirit of the revolution. The characters in this film come from very different walks of life but I think their dedication and unwillingness to compromise on their principles is something that connects them all.

Magdy Ashour, the activist from the Muslim Brotherhood, was such a fascinating character. Before Morsi became president we see him identifying with Ahmed and all the others who were treated unfairly by the Mubarak regime. But once the Muslim Brotherhood takes control of the government, he finds himself in a very tough place. His struggle through that and the way he keeps his friendship with Ahmed despite their differences made me very hopeful that such opposing groups could ultimately work together.

Jehane: Magdy has been with the Brotherhood for 25 years. He’s been financially supported by them, his son has been educated by them, he’s passionately involved with them — but at a certain point he gets very disillusioned. You see him start to question the Brotherhood’s motivations in the film.

Karim: That conflict was important to convey because it’s very real. A lot of people, especially here in the West, want to label every member of the Muslim Brotherhood as believing in X, Y, and Z, but it’s much more complicated than that.


The scene where Ahmed and Magdy talk at the height of the tension concerning Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood is very moving. I only wish Democrats and Republicans in our Congress could come together for such conversations despite their disagreement!

We had a screening with a bunch of ex-members of the Mormon Church who thought they were going to hate Magdy, but they ended up thinking he was a very sympathetic character.

Jehane: A lot of people really relate to Magdy because of his struggle.

Karim: Even evangelical Christians have come up to us to say they how much they related to him in the film. They never thought they’d connect with a Muslim with a beard — that is usually their vision of the enemy!

When you guys were there in the Square when the army  took control and then with the elections that put Morsi in power — did you think at the time that maybe things could work out even though it wasn’t the ideal scenario? 

Khalid: Every single leadership that has come to power since the revolution started has had a golden opportunity to do it right. But unfortunately, in every case hubris has gotten in the way, and they’ve tried to organize the whole country around their own political interests.

I remember that scene in the film, Khalid, when you were freaking out a bit about the elections. So you never held out any hope for Morsi being able to fairly govern the country?

No. In that scene I was responding to the naive idea that the ballot box was everything. At that stage, the ballot box was being used to make us feel that we were participating in something that we weren’t really participating in. An election is an extremely powerful thing — it makes you feel like you have a voice. But you have to start questioning whether you’ve actually been given a voice when time after time after time you don’t feel listened to.

In the case of those elections, was there just not enough time for other types of candidates to mount a viable campaign?

No. And try to imagine an election being held in this country at the same time that the government who is holding the elections is killing people in the streets! Another problem is that in Egypt the army and the Muslim Brotherhood created this political roadmap in which we would have parliamentary elections and then that government would write a new constitution. In other words, a group would come to power and then write the document that would define its power. That’s not the way things should work — you need the checks and balances. Both the army and the Brotherhood used it to shore up their own interests and ignore everyone else.

So you had no hope for Morsi from the beginning?

Not at all. I mean, look, you always want to believe in the possibility that the people in power will understand the situation and try to get it right — but believe me, I don’t think any of us were prepared for how brazenly stupid they turned out to be.

Karim: The reality is that Egypt is going through a kind of “founding,” it’s not just a transition from one government to another. It’s the entire infrastructure that’s at stake here, so that’s why it’s such a contentious fight because every pillar that’s put down is going to be worth so much down the road. The problem is that every group that’s come in so far has made it an exclusionary process even though the way this revolution started was very pluralistic.

If I were on the streets of Cairo today, do you think I would feel a sense of optimism about the future of the country and the process that lies ahead?

I think one major thing that has changed is the idea that now regular citizens can and should become more active participants in the writing of the narrative for the country.

Khalid: Right now we’re still in a very dark time. But what’s different from the dark days of the past is that you’ll find people saying that if the leaders don’t do what they promised, we’ll be out in the streets again. That’s the main thing that has changed — people feel they have a say now in guaranteeing that the process continues. Which then makes the people in positions of authority feel that there is a ticking clock, and that if they don’t do enough the people will be after them. So that’s part of the balance. You can’t just look at a moment in time and ask whether people are optimistic or pessimistic. I think Egyptians are generally optimistic about the long run, even if they’re not sure how they’re going to get there.

[video_lightbox_youtube video_id=twB2zAOzsKE width=1280 height=720 anchor=”/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/thesquare-trailer.jpg”]

The Square is playing in select cities. Click here to learn more about the film.