Interview with Jehane Noujaim

Interview with Jehane Noujaim

Interviewed by Yasmine Hassan, TIM Associate Features Editor

What was your experience on the front lines of the uprisings, camera in hand? Why did you choose these specific characters to represent the revolution?

We met all of the characters in the square in the eighteen days before Mubarak stepped down. Everyone was sleeping next to each other in tents so it wasn’t that difficult to find. They all met each other separately as well because they were all among each other in the square. People were fighting, dying, eating next to each other. These are bonds that were created that are difficult to be broken. What we hope the film does is that it provides a memory for people of this initial unity that people felt in the square and this real humanity that regardless of political background people care about each other.

I met Khalid through Aida el Kashef, through a movie I made earlier in 2007, she introduced me to Khalid and his wife. I met Magdy because he was spending a lot of time with Pierre. They got into political discussions and it was fascinating watching a Coptic Egyptian and a member of the Muslim brotherhood discuss politics and learn from each other in ways that I had never seen before in Egypt. Ahmed I met through a friend of mine was making a news piece about him and I just instantly fell in love with him. Here was this street poet who really represented everything that I love about Egyptians, a sense of humour and a deep emotional intelligence. He comes form Shobra, his mom is a vegetable seller and he’s held every job you can think of from a cook to a cleaner. He went down to the square because he was frustrated. Although he had an education in Journalism there weren’t any opportunities for him.

thesquareI follow people I fall in love with I don’t follow people that I’m trying to negatively expose because these films takes so long so you have to be a little crazy to do them. You don’t know where they’re going, you’re going to be following this person for a while, in this case it took three years. You’re editing them and then spending time releasing the film. So if you follow someone you better be following people that you believe have important valuable views to share with the world.


How do you, as a filmmaker, decide that the story you are telling is complete given that as we’ve clearly seen stability and change do not come into the region immediately after an uprising?

I make films which are character driven, I concentrate deeply on the emotional story of a few characters and I believe that a film really cannot handle more than going deeply into three characters because the more characters you have in a film the shallower you can go.

So you’re following this emotional journey because you want to give people a sense of what it feels like to be in their shoes and that’s actually the complete opposite of what journalists do, which is to try and get as many perspectives as possible and cover as many events as you can. This is not a journalistic report. Even though are there many crucial events that have happened in Egypt since the end of the making of this film, we felt that we could end the film because we felt that we had gone through a complete cycle with our characters. That their journeys and the conclusions they had come to had come to an end and that was that they had come to the conclusion that there was not some leader that would come from the Heavens and save Egypt, the answer was a consciousness, an active citizenry and a pluralistic nation that cares about everyone and protects everyone regardless of their background. If you talk to each character today they are still saying the same thing that they said in the film. Even though many events took place since, they’re still fighting the same fight.


It’s not surprising that the documentary was banned from Egypt at the same time that the military is making its way back into the place it had prior to January 25th. What was your response to the news?

We had initially submitted the film to censorship, we waited three months for a response and we submitted it through a number of different ways. Our first showing was supposed to be at the Panorama Film Festival but two days before the festival they said that they would not issue us a formal letter. They would give a verbal okay but you need to have a formal letter in order to legally show the film. And that is the first step in going towards a wider release. Since the film has been nominated and talked about more, the censorship department and others have said that the film is welcome in Egypt, we should resubmit and that they hadn’t officially banned it. In a way we have this choice, I don’t want to get into a war of words with the censorship department that will be responsible for allowing millions of people to see it legally, I think that’s detrimental. So we have now resubmitted the film through Marianne Khoury and Misr International Film as an Egyptian film and we’re waiting to hear whether the film passes or not.

(KA): I think there’s definitely an attempt to whitewash history, every group that’s come into power since the revolution has tried to do that. They tried to basically pretend that they didn’t make any mistakes and pin everything on the other. What’s happening is a failure to squarequoteunderstand that what made this revolution successful in the beginning was the pluralism it was Egyptians coming together for the first time. This is the land of the Pharaohs and since Mina no one has come down and said bread, freedom and social equality.

I think that something fundamental has shifted in Egypt, the size of it is so large and it forced the successors to reorganize the country, there is a reorganization of the mechanics of every organizations, infrastructures and political identity in the country. So I think that that’s what’s currently happening and it’s going to take time for the revolution to succeed but I think eventually it will get there because fundamentally the demands of the revolution have not yet been met and so people will continue fighting. People like Khalid, Ahmed and Magdy, Rajia and Aida will continue to fight for their rights and the rights of people to come. We have to rid ourselves of the false idea of change, the idea that change comes in quickly and easily. You just see the glory when you’re taught history you don’t see the suffering.


The revolution in Egypt continues, as many of the youth remain unsatisfied with the current situation in the nation. That being said, what’s next for you, as a filmmaker that has received acclaim for The Square?

Egypt will always be in my heart, my family lives in Egypt, and I’ve been there for the last three years. In terms of what’s next we have 1600 hours of footage from the film, I’m a woman behind the camera and there were many other women behind the camera and involved in this production. There are stories of Rajia Omran that we would like to work on more and release, she was the human rights lawyer in the story. The reason why we decided that we needed to a film solely on her is because her story takes us very deep into the legal system and courts in Egypt. That’s something I would love to do. We also filmed inside the three political campaigns, Morsy, Shafiq and Amr Moussa during the elections and that’s quite an interesting story we’re working on. I’m also looking into doing fiction.

Jehane Noujaim (left) doing a Q&A on her film, Solar Mamas. Photo courtesy of Why Poverty/Flickr.

Jehane Noujaim (left) doing a Q&A on her film, Solar Mamas.
Photo courtesy of Why Poverty/Flickr.

(KA): I think that what we’re trying to do is that we really want to continue the conversation. This revolution is an outcry for freedom of expression at its core and I think culture is going to play a huge part in the continuation of this revolution and it’s success. And I think that we need to come together and use the momentum of a film like this being the first Egyptian Oscar nominated film to pave the road for other films and other works of art to have the kind of representation that they need. We come from a part of the world that is very rich in culture and heritage and we are some of the oldest storytellers in the world, we have a responsibility as the diaspora here to help create the space for stories back home to be in the conscience of the American public.

The image of women in the Middle East is always the same and suddenly you have two women nominated for Oscars this year. I think that’s what this whole movement is about, changing the narrative. The problem in the region is that we’re trapped in the old narratives and the old stories and we get stuck in a very disappointing position because you come out and your parents tell you that you have a very rich history and that you should be proud of it. Then you come out into the world you find out that your story isn’t living up to that, it’s a difficult world  and you’re not being represented and you don’t have a voice. You don’t have the opportunity to write your own story. And I think that what happened in that square is that people decided that they would be the authors of that story that they would reclaim that authorship and there’s no stopping that. Our only fear is the story of fear because it’s one that attacks, constrains and limits and destroys.

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