Jehane Noujaim: The Square


Jehane Noujaim: The Square

Jehane Noujaim: The Square

by Sherif Awad

Documentary
filmmaker Jehane Noujaim has made a name for herself in the last decade through
a handful of powerful social and political documentaries with varied subjects
and locations. For their high quality and noted novelty, her two debuts Startup.com
(2001) and Control Room (2004) were picked up for distribution by two landmark
independent American studios. In 2007, she directed a documentary about shayfeencom
(We Can See You), an Egyptian movement monitoring all kinds of corruption in governmental
and non-governmental Egyptian institutions. In 2008, Noujaim was awarded TED Price,
which gave her an opportunity to join project called Pangeaday aiming to change
the world through film by asking people around the world to submit films that
were eventually edited into a 4-hour program watched at the same time in 1800
locations inside 100 countries.  In late 2012,
Noujaim was again active in the Arab world with two new documentaries. The
First is Rafea: Solar Mama that got support from Tribeca Enterprises only
to be premiered in Toronto Festival 2012. The second is The Square, a
look at the hard realities in the aftermath of the Egyptian revolution.
Jehane Noujaim was
born in the United States to an Egyptian father from the city of Port Said (who
also has a Syrian- Lebanese decent) and an American mother who spent most of
her life in Egypt and the Arab world. The family moved to Kuwait for some time
then returned to Egypt when Jehane was seven. “It was 1981, the year when Sadat
was assassinated and Mubarak came to power “, she recalls while taking a break
from editing her new documentary The Square that had its world premiere
in Sundance Festival last January.
Noujaim’s first
artistic interest was photography, being an expressive way to connect with both
her American and Egyptian roots. After going to Harvard in order to study
medicine, she completely changed direction to filmmaking after taking a film
course.  In college years, Noujaim also realized
her first photographic thesis about the Egyptian zabaleen (garbage collecting
men) at their working area, the Moqattam Mountain in the suburbs of Cairo. While
in Egypt, Noujaim briefly worked as an editor in the Egypt Today. She
remembers that the article she wrote was about three young Egyptians who were
studying to become tour guides.
In 2001, Noujaim made
her directorial debut with the documentary Startup.com in which she
compared business versus friendship through the real story of the rise and fall
of two friends, Kaleil Isaza Tuzman and Tom Herman who both had a dream since they
were fifteen: to get rich by developing their own dot com company. So in their
late twenties, they both went to create GovWorks.com, an on-line revenue
collection interface for municipal governments. Startup.com was
exceptionally screened in Cairo International Film Festival whose main focus is
long narrative films.  It opened in May
2011 in the US and was distributed by Artisan Entertainment right after it picked
up The Blair Witch Project. It was a good opportunity for Noujaim to
work with two legendary documentary filmmakers such as D.A. Pennebake and Chris
Hegedus. The latter shares with her the directorial credit. “Accidentally,
“September 11 attacks” took place at the same week in which Startup.com was
opening in the UK”, remembers Jehane who immediately wanted to return to the
Middle East in order to understand the reactions of 9/11 attacks in her
homeland. That’s why she accepted an offer from Promo7, an Egyptian advertising
agency that was hired by the US government to realize a project aiming to
improve the image of the US in Egypt and the Middle East after those attacks.
“I thought it was an interesting opportunity to visit colleges and talk to
focus groups across Egypt while making this survey about the reason why rising
generation likes or dislikes the US political double standards in this Middle
East region. Through this project, the US was trying to develop a PR strategy
to improve its image without affecting its foreign policies, which is
nonsense!” says Jehane with a smile. 
“After filming for four months, I made a mistake of delivering the
footage to Promo7 people who went to show it to the State Department that hired
them. Of course the Americans freaked out and Promo7 never give me back the
material”, she remembers. It was one of the reasons why Jehane to make her
follow-up documentary Control Room (2004), which was shot inside Jazeera
studios in Doha, Qatar during the American invasion of Iraq.  
“I was curious about
Jazeera because it was the station everybody across Egypt was super excited
about. Even people from poor neighborhoods were buying satellite dishes to be
able to watch it. At that time, Jazeera was nicknamed in the US as the
mouthpiece of Osama bin Laden, while also being hated by most of the Arab
countries”, explains Jehane. “However, I thought there should be something
right happening inside this station that was angering all these governments.
This made me fly to Qatar during the early US warning of attacking Iraq in 2003”,
she says.
Because he was in contact with Jazeera when sending students
fo internships, Abdallah Schleifer, the
prominent Middle East expert and professor of TV journalism at the American
University in Cairo, helped Noujaim to get inside the center command of
Jazeera.  “Arriving in Jazeera studios, I
started to meet everybody including two interesting people working there:  The Jordanian Samir Khader, who was working
as program editor of Jazeera, and the Sudanese Hassan Ibrahim who later moved
to Jazeera International, the sister English Channel”, remembers Jehane.
The reception of Control
Room
was mixed according to where it was release.  “Generally, viewers and people are always
interested in the other side. When Control Room was released in the US
through Magnolia Pictures, American viewers were happy to see Hassan and Samir
because, before that, they had a stereotypical though that Osama bin Laden was
through Jazeera’s hallways”, laughs Jehane. “Hassan was an eye-opener for
American viewers because they were astonished how he understands the US better
than how the average American understands the Arab world. In Egypt, Control
Room
was like a déjà-vu because it was highly depressive for some Egyptian
viewers to relive what happened in the Iraqi Invasion. Although nobody liked to
see someone in a US military uniform, some Egyptian rooted for a third
character in Control Room, which was Lt. Josh Rushing because, throughout
the events, he went through obvious changes from being pro-US to highly
expressing  his empathy after meeting
people from the region and interacting 
with Jazeera reporters. So Egyptians were curious about where he went
after the war. Actually he landed a job in Jazeera, hosting Fault Lines,
Jazeera English’s flagship program about the Americas”, revealed Jehane who has
different feeling about Jazeera now. “Because Qatar started to have bigger
roles outside of its borders and across the Middle East, it now makes a
difference who is controlling Jazeera and what Jazeera is saying now.  I was very disappointed while watching the Jazeera
coverage of current events in Egypt during the past few months or so… The
questions asked by its anchors are quite misleading and shameless. It was
obvious that Qatar has an interest of what is happening in Egypt and this
affects how the news is reported, which is very problematic”, she says.
In 2012, Jehane
Noujaim tracked down the title character of Rafea: Solar Mama, a Bedouin
woman who lives with her four daughters in one of Jordan’s poorest desert
villages on the Iraqi border. Rafea was given a chance to travel to India to
attend the Barefoot College, where illiterate grandmothers from around the
world are trained in 6 months to become solar engineers. Then comes al-Midan
(The Square) that will premiere in the infamous Sundance Film Festival (Jan
17-27) in Park City, Utah.
The Square is
the hardest and most personal project being about Tahrir Square which is ten minutes
away from where I grew up”, she says. “It starts in the first days of the revolution
then go on to recount what has happened till nowadays through different characters
from different political sides including actor and liberal activist Khalid
Abdalla, Islamic Brotherhood’s Magdi Ashoor, filmmaker and actress Aida al-Kashef,
and an Egyptian military. The events of The Square are seen through
their eyes, from different perceptives. It is not a documentary taking a side against
Mubarak or SCAF or The Brotherhood but it is an observation about the fight
against power. We have a scene taking place next to al-Etihadia Palace during
the protests that followed President Mursi’s constitutional declaration. It
shows this pro-Brotherhood young man who is going to fight against his friends
of January 25 in the square. He is the victim of Brotherhood’s propaganda that describes
everyone from their opposition as a bataltagy (bully).  The young man is shocked when he sees the
images of friends he used to know being tortured at al-Etihadia doors. This
shock happens because, either in Egypt or the States, some people are exposed
to their own news, their own Facebook and Twitter feeds which blind them from
seeing the big picture”, says Jehane.
So what’s next for
Jehane after The Square at Sundance? “Maybe a feature film. I might also
work on footage we shot during the latest Egyptian presidential elections. We
extensively interviewed fantastic characters who worked in the campaigns of
candidates Amr Moussa, Ahmed Shafik and the current President Mursi.  Interesting enough, the Islamic Brotherhood
were comparing their 85 years struggle of rising to power to the African-American
Civil Rights Movement headed by Martin Luther King!”.

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Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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