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!”.