Noujaim's film, a powerful cinema vérité account from inside the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, has already made a huge impact on international audiences. A work-in-progress version won the Audience Award at Sundance in 2013. Then, as the real-world events continued to progress, Noujaim went back and added more footage, along with another award: the People's Choice at the Toronto International Film Festival. Now it's off the festival circuit and out in the world, being released on Netflix and in select theatres, and earning Egypt's first Oscar nomination in the same week.
Up until now, the movie hasn't been available in Egypt. But according to Noujaim, the Oscar nomination and Netflix release are helping change all that -- through both official and unofficial channels. So, on the eve of the third anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Moviefone Canada spoke to Noujaim about what the nomination has meant for "The Square," the reaction to the documentary both in Egypt and abroad, and how Egyptians are finally starting to see the film, even though it's not technically available there yet.
First off, I just want to say congratulations on the Oscar nomination.
Thank you. We're completely honoured and humbled to be with so many other great filmmakers and films. And we're excited to be nominated at a time when releasing a film like this is so important, to remember the dreams of the people that have been fighting in Egypt for the last three years and this comes as our country, as Egypt goes through this difficult time, as a constitution has been voted on, as the president is elected, as parliament is elected. So it is exciting to get this kind of international recognition for a story which is about an ongoing struggle.
This is now the first Egyptian film to earn a nomination. But it still hasn't been released or screened in Egypt yet, correct?
Actually, that whole story has changed in the last few days with the Oscar nomination. The censorship [board] in Egypt held a press release and said that they welcome the film, so we are in the process of re-submitting the film for consideration through the censorship [board] through a distributor in Egypt. But meanwhile, the film has been released on Netflix on Friday, so before we actually had the chance to once again go through the process of censorship, revolutionaries and different people on the streets in Egypt had said, "You know, the entire world has been able to see this film. This is the first Egyptian Oscar-nominated film, it's about our struggle, we need to see it now." And I've had the most incredible messages sent to me on YouTube and Facebook, saying, "I'm so sorry, I pirated the film. I learned how to get Netflix for a month from Egypt, using a US IP address. [Laughs] I posted it online, but it's so important that we are watching this right now, and when the DVD comes out, I promise I'll buy it."
So there's been an amazing outpouring of people who have now seen the film. We originally tried to control it, because you can't control the pirated versions; the credits are cut off, sometimes it's cut off 10 minutes before, some of them are terrible-quality copies. So we were really trying to catch up and pull the copies down and write copyright infringement notices to YouTube, but every time we would pull the film down, there would be 20 copies that would go up in its place. Every time we would look at a copy, after two hours there would be thousands and thousands of views. And under the film it would be, "See this quickly, because it could be taken down any minute." [Laughs]
It became impossible to control and at a certain point, we just thought, this is why we made this film, for the Egyptian public to see it. And the fact that it's known about and it's being watched and discussed and screenings are now being held in something like 30 cities around the country, it's a very exciting time. And we are going to be releasing online the final version on the anniversary of the Revolution, so that people actually have access to the final downloadable copy of the film.
But I'm going through the censorship process to try to release it in theatres at the same time. It's a totally backwards way of doing it, and the Egyptian distributor has obviously never done it this way before, but they're completely on board as they recognize that the more people that see it and talk about it, the more people will hopefully come to the theaters to see it when and if it is able to come out legally.
That's amazing. So it sounds like win or lose come Oscar night, just the nomination itself has already had a huge effect on the film.
Yeah, after two days, from the people that were trying to take [those copies] down, they said that there were about 750,000 views. So it's just unbelievable. People are quoting in many different languages online, in Egypt mainly, "We're not looking for a leader, we're looking for a conscience" [a quote from Ahmed Hassan, the documentary's main subject]. But because the movie has also been released on Netflix simultaneously in over 40 countries, that's also being written in 40 different languages.
Are you pleased to see international audiences responding so positively to the documentary, and clearly connecting not just with the specific story but also to the overall message?
Oh, definitely. Because when we made this film, the reason why we got so personal with our characters, I believe that the more deeply personal you make a film character-wise, and the deeper you go, the more universal the film becomes. And different friends of mine in South America and Europe have said, "You know, I forgot that Ahmed was speaking Arabic at a certain point in time." It really became all about a struggle for justice and human rights and social justices, and fighting for something that you believe in, and not purely about an Egyptian struggle. It's a film that's about what it takes to actually struggle for change. And that's a universal issue that everybody deals with, no matter what change you're fighting for. It's not necessarily the specifics of Egypt or the [Muslim] Brotherhood and the army and the police, and our specific politics, but what the story is actually about is these individuals and what they go through in order to fight for what they believe in.
This is also a more intimate portrayal of the Revolution than a straight overview of its events. Do you think that approach helps make the story even more affecting for people than the reports they may have seen either on the news or via social media?
Our hope as filmmakers was to be able to try to share the very raw, visceral experience of what it actually felt like to be there. And that is something that is so very different from what news stations try to do, or what journalists do. It's actually exactly the opposite. Because what a journalist does is try to cover as much as possible, as much detail as possible of the various events that are taking place and the politics that are going on, and to take oftentimes quite a wide view of what's going on. And that was not our goal.
Our goal was to try to get a very raw feeling of what it felt like to be one of these characters in the square. And I believe, if you're able as a filmmaker to touch somebody's heart with the dreams and aspirations of somebody like Ahmed, the next time that people see a news piece or wonder about what's going on in Egypt, they have a much more personal connection to somebody that's halfway across the world. And that's the goal. It's a piece of art, and it's a very narrow focus of the perspective and ideas and hopes and dreams of three people, which is very different from trying to get at an overview of the Revolution, or try to explain the views of the 80 million people that were involved in the last three years of struggle in Egypt.
Obviously, the story of the Revolution is far from over, and you were able to add more footage to the film in between screening it at Sundance and Toronto, and now with its final release on Netflix and in theatres. Was it difficult to decide when to stop filming, or could you have kept going and adding more?
You know, the Revolution is ongoing and there are very important news events that have happened since we finished the film, but I felt like our characters had come to a very definite conclusion, where they felt like there's no leader that's going to come down from the heavens and fix the problems. This struggle is about having a caring, conscious, active citizenry, and that is what's going to affect the future. And each one of our characters came to that. So we felt like the film, in terms of our characters' journeys, had come to an end. Even though the characters are continuing on the ground now, the kinds of feelings that they're expressing now have all been touched on in the film.
"The Square" is now streaming on Netflix and Netflix Canada.