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Egypt Earns Its first Oscar Nom for a Documentary on Tahrir Square

Dark figures wearing gas masks and angel wings grace the movie poster for director Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square, which traces the first two years of Egypt’s ongoing revolution through the eyes of six Tahrir Square protesters.

The film earned Egypt’s first Oscar nod, for “best documentary.” To Noujaim, the nomination “is in honor of the Egyptians who are still struggling … for their hopes and dreams and for the blood of the thousands that have been sacrificed for the struggle for human rights and social justice.” The Square is also the first documentary to be exclusively distributed by Netflix.

Noujaim set out for Cairo immediately after protests exploded in January 2011. After a brief run-in with Egyptian police (the first of many to come during filming), the Egyptian-American director arrived at Tahrir Square, where she met the people who would become her subjects.

Khalid Abdalla
, a British-Egyptian film actor who has starred in The Kite Runner and United 93, has served as a media spokesman for the protesters.

Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, fled to a relative’s house after the Egyptian army’s crackdown on Brotherhood leadership last summer. When called in for official questioning, according to Noujaim, “He said, ‘If I go in, I could be arrested.’ So he hasn’t gone in.”

Ahmed Hassan, a protest leader who himself takes up a camera, is the main figure in the documentary. He sees a bright future for Egypt despite the political uncertainties and military dependence that plague the country. His optimistic outlook anchors the film.

“Ahmed says if we’ve learned anything, we’ve learned Egyptians will not put up with a repressive regime, and they will keep voicing their concerns and fighting for change,” Noujaim says.

Noujaim’s film crew was recruited from the protesters around her. “You can’t hire people to go shoot [film] for you when you’re getting tear gassed and shot and jailed for being there,” she says. “It had to be a product of the Square.” Her production office was a few minutes’ walk from Tahrir Square. “It was both a school and a production office at the same time,” she says. Protesters would take a break from gas attacks and army bullets to learn sound editing and film production.

And The Square would not have been possible without the help of its own subjects: Arrested three times by Egyptian authorities, Noujaim depended on Ragia Omran, a human rights lawyer who fights protesters’ legal battles in the film. “She got me out of prison every time,” says Noujaim. Even Noujaim’s producer, Karim Amer, came from Tahrir. Noujaim met him in her early days at the square, and spent two weeks filming Amer before he decided he’d rather be behind the camera than in front of it.

After winning the audience award for The Square at Sundance, Noujaim returned to Cairo to capture the story of the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government. Those scenes are featured in a new version of the documentary. And though Noujaim ultimately stopped filming when she felt her subjects had completed their own character arcs, she believes that the Egyptian revolution is still far from over.

The Square periodically returns to a constantly changing mural by the street painter Ammar Abo Bakr (who also created the angelic protesters for the movie poster). Abo Bakr painted his murals “as the battle would be going on between protesters and army or police, and tear gas canisters would be flying, says Noujaim. “The mural motif “was very much to show this ever-evolving situation, where different people take power and step on each other,” says Noujaim.

-Sharon Jacobs