As unprecedented mass protests against the government of long-time Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak broke out in Egypt in January 2011, Egyptian-American documentary filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (known for her previous films Control Room, Startup.com and Pangea Day) went with her camera to the epicenter, Cairo's Tahrir Square. There she found the characters she
would follow through the series of ensuing revolutionary and counterrevolutionary thrusts and clashes - marches, riots, violent- and non-violet civil demonstrations that would seize Egypt and, in one form or another, continue to date as the nation struggles to find its way. Among Noujaim's compelling subjects are Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned and tortured during the Mubarak days and is seizing, with tenderness and passion, an almost unimaginable opportunity to see a new day; Ahmed Saleh, a young street revolutionary who risks his life in the thick of the protests; Ramy Essam, a musician who becomes the quixotic minstral of the Tahrir protest movement (and a victim of army brutality); and Khalid Abdalla, a prominant British-Eqyptian actor known for his politically-charged and courageous roles.
The Square is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and won the Audience Award for World Cinema in the documentary category at Sundance, though in an unfinished form. Originally cut to conclude in the democratic election of Egypt's first president from the Muslim Brotherhood, the edit was overtaken by events and Noujaim found herself shuttling back and forth between "the square" and the edit room as the political situation morphed and convulsed with radical turns of events. Each time, she found her characters still there, struggling to react to and parse the evolutions and devolutions of what they were still then calling "The Revolution."
The revolution began on January 25th, but it was on January 26th, when he realized people were staying in Tahrir Square and continuing the protest, that Khalid Abdalla knew he had to go. Friday, after prayers, would be a pivitol moment. He's still there, no longer living in "emergency conditions" in the square itself, but transplanted in Cairo from his home in the UK, dedicated to the ongoing pro-democracy movement. I worked intimately with Khalid on two films - "United 93" in which he plays lead 9/11 hijacker Ziad Jarrah, and "Green Zone" about the Iraq war, in which he plays an Iraqi translator lost in translation between the American invaders and the Iraqi populace, both films directed by Paul Greengrass. Khalid and I caught up by phone for 90 minutes earlier this week about his experience behind the documentary camera this time as the Oscars loom (and, coincidentally, on the day the military-backed interim governement of Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi abruptly and unexpectedly resigned, instigating yet another turn in the ongoing political upheaval). -Michael Bronner
Michael Bronner: Khalid, congratulations on the film.
Khalid Abdalla: Thank you.
MB: So tell me a little bit about the title. Obviously, The Square refers to Tahrir Square, but is there additional symbolism, and/or is it all encompassing? How do you see it, given that Egypt is a large, diverse country, and the revolution is ongoing?
KA: I didn’t name the film, but I think it’s a very powerful name. It’s actually extraordinary that the word "the square," or al midan in Arabic, could refer to so much. Using the definite article, al midan, there’s no doubt what it refers to, and obviously that’s the sense in which it’s used. I think it’s a fair title insofar as that’s the story it tells: The film doesn’t pretend to tell the story of the entire country. It doesn’t pretend to tell the story of the entire city. It doesn’t pretend to tell the story of all the squares. And yet, at the same time, it chooses the square as a focal point, which I think, insofar as it’s become this iconic space in which so many dreams and hopes and symbols and experiences and ghosts and metaphors have thrived and fallen - it is our stage, and…I can’t remember where that sentence started [laughs], But yeah, it’s one of the aspects of the film that gives it unity in time and place, even in terms of how the film is dramatically structured. And of course, it’s one of the peculiar things about the film, that even the idea of making a film about an event of this size, or the idea of choosing characters, you’re always excluding. Ideally, what you want to do is you want to exclude in a way that opens up ideas and allows people to come closer, and through the experience move deeper. I think that’s what the square actually was for so many people, and remains for so many people, and was for the whole world and will continue to be in many different ways.
MB: You say that The Square is not necessarily representative of all of Egypt or the entire government or the people of Egypt, but yet the film’s really taken on its own life - it’s been shown in and found a kinship with "squares" all over the world. There’s Kiev, where it was shown amid roiling protests. In Venezuela it was shown publicly, in the heat of protests there. It was shown in the middle of the Zócalo in Mexico City. There’s something really exciting and interesting and also quite strange about this; I’m not quite able to put my finger on it. What do you make of the fact that it’s being shown in so many places where there’s upheaval? As a rallying cry, if that's what it's meant to be, it's somewhat problematic, actually, in that nothing is actually resolved in Egypt...
KA: It’s extraordinarily moving, and the similarity of images is striking. Actually, the first experience I had moving between "squares" was on March 26, 2011, which was the first time I’d gone back to London since the beginning of the revolution. I was traveling for work-related reasons. I was entirely in the world of Egypt, and I arrived in London on the day of the student demonstrations in the UK. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that that was what was happening. I arrived and lots of friends sent me messages saying, “What have you done? Have you brought the revolution with you? There’s thousands of people on the street.” I arrived home, switched the TV on and saw these images and thought, “Well, I reckon I’m probably one of the few people in the world that’s traveled, literally, from one protest straight into another." So I left the house immediately and went to Trafalgar Square, and I remember walking in feeling like the space itself – I was even geographically thinking in the same way, because having lived in [Tahrir Square] for so long, as you enter, you have a different sense of security: Is there going to be checkpoint as you’re going in? Where are the places where the police or otherwise might come from? And it was very peculiar to me, because there was obviously this kinship, and yet people look different. But you somehow knew that there was a deeper alliance. What was weird is, they were facing down – eventually, later on in the night – police in different uniforms and using slightly different tactics, but it was essentially the same. Some of the demonstrators were carrying the same Egyptian flag. It was the weirdest thing for me, obviously, in that particular case, of being British-Egyptian. And then, hours later, in the evening, when police were going to clear the square, it’s a slightly different experience of police brutality, but there it was. But anyway, talking about the wider experiences of the square elsewhere in the world, the honest truth is I don’t yet know what to make of it, which is similar to the experience of this whole revolution - that there is so much that I will continue to be unpacking. It strikes me that a lot of the world is confused, actually, about what is happening in Ukraine and is confused about what is happening in Venezuela, but ultimately there is one thing that I’ve come to believe: that there is no smoke without fire.
MB: What do you mean?
KA: Well, as in, there are leftist critiques of what’s going on Venezuela, and part of the process we’re going through right now internationally is that the idea of protest obviously over time has become more and more complicated. There was a point at which anyone who was protesting was immediately the good guy, and now it’s shifting and turning and there are no easy interpretations. Ultimately, you have a basic structure to things, which is people protesting against state power. It’s the same experience in Egypt. Now you have protesters of different stripes, and it’s not necessarily true that anyone protesting you agree with in terms of what they’re demanding. And yet, at the same time, there is no doubt, in my mind, always, that there is a legitimate grievance. Whenever people are brought down into the streets in those numbers, you can be sure there is a legitimate grievance. Even if there's confusion and contradiction --
MB: As there is still in Egypt as well...
KA: Well, yeah, Egypt, but I’m here, so I have a very keen sense of what’s going on. I think the biggest issue that the world is interrogating right now is: What is the best way to hold our leaders accountable? Is it through the ballot box? Or is it through our squares and protests? And, rather, what is the right balance between those two things? And when we look at our world – and this is the kind of statistic that always shocks me, because it speaks so clearly – and you realize that the 85 richest people's wealth equals that in aggregate of the poorest 3.5 billion, and you ask yourself how it starts. How is that extraordinary injustice to be sold through a ballot box, especially as that dimension of inequality exists pretty much in every country? Obviously, what we’re going through is a period in which the value and role of protest is going through a renaissance of some kind.
MB: We can circle back to some of those themes. How did you become involved with the documentary itself?
KA: Jehane was filming in the square - she's a documentary filmmaker from the Pennebaker school, and she was using filming as a way to understand and a way to see, and she interviewed me. At the time, I thought that was just one interview or maybe a couple of interviews. We were situated in what's called the "media tent," and it was this area with all of these people who worked in film and who were related to the Internet and social media, and a whole lot of us just happened to be friends and know each other and hang around the same area. Also, the media tent was set up to collect footage and videos and pictures, because we were otherwise in a type of media blackout. Then, over time, Jehane kept filming in the square and I kept being in the square, obviously. I had no desire or intention to be in a documentary film, but it just so happened that I was one of the people she had filmed from the beginning. And this is one of the difficult things for me: I'm a complicated character in terms of the film, and you watch me because I speak English well, and sometimes I'm interpreting events as a kind of commentator or is it because I'm a participant? Fundamentally, for me, the only thing I've been interested in is being a participant. I guess one of the things that I've discovered is that it's much harder to be a character in a documentary film than it is to play a fictional character in a fictional film.
Director Jehane Noujaim
MB: You must have an awareness of the camera that others wouldn't --
KA: You'd think that what it would make you do is play to the camera, whereas actually what it made me do is be very resistant to the camera, because whenever I felt that it was intervening in my life or asking me to do something for it, I was incredibly resistant to it or I'd run away or ask not to be filmed. Because the idea that me being filmed should be more important than me participating was deeply objectionable to me, and in the end I think that's part of what made me attractive to the camera - because I'm not pretending. The life that you see is the life I lived, regardless of whether there was a camera or not. Of course there's many many many things missing, and that's what I'm saying. It's an odd thing where, at the end of the day, 25 minutes of three years of your life becomes in people's minds the entirety of the story. I also recognize the value, because that sort of happened over time. They didn't know I was going to be a major character in the film - you know they filmed with many people - until they went back to the editing room ad started going over footage.
MB: Talk a little about your connections with Egypt and how they’ve evolved. Your parents are Egyptian, but you were born in London...
KA: Yeah. As you know, I’m the third generation in a family that's been fighting for social reform in Egypt. My grandfather and father were both political prisoners, my grandfather first imprisoned in ’56, but fighting from the ’40s. My father was a very active and well-known figure in the student movement of the ’70s, and that was the reason I ended up being born abroad. They decided to leave the country in ’75 because it was clear that he was going to be in prison for a long time. Then in ’77 the Bread Riots happened, and if he entered the country he would be taken straight to prison, and that led to an exile that ended up with me being born in Scotland. There was always a plan to return to Egypt, but it never happened for a variety of reasons. Nonetheless, I’ve always had a very strong relationship with Egypt and with my cultural heritage, and I very much identified with both the politics and the ethics and the social conscience of my grandfather and father - and my family in general, but particularly them.
MB: And so you were marinated in this kind of consciousness your whole life.
KA: Yes, and then on top of it, you have the experience of growing up as someone with my cultural heritage in the UK, either in terms of what that meant in relation to Palestine, or what that meant in relation to Arab and Muslim identity in general. What that meant during the Gulf War, what that meant during 9/11. What that meant during the Iraq War, and onwards. I’ve always grown up with a very keen sense of the difference between how my identity was seen in the country and the culture in which I grew up, and my actual experience of it, whether within my family and our friends in the UK, or in Egypt and the other countries in the region that I’ve been to. I grew up with a very acute sense of that difference, and it became, for a variety of reasons - not least because I decided to become an actor and work in the performing arts and film, in which you’re engaging in acts of representation - more and more something that I really had to grapple with as responsibly as I could.
MB: I found the Skype conversations with your father that are depicted in "The Square" - you in Cairo, he in the UK - particularly fascinating and engaging because there's a historical context that I wish we could have had more of in the film. What were some of the tensions that played out over the course of all of this with your father? What were some of the key points of argument, connection, discussion between the two of you, beginning with your decision to go?
KA: Well, he was the first person I called when I decided to go [to Cairo] and asked what I should do. And we came to the decision that I had to go, and it was also clear that there would be violence, so it was a matter of "take care."
MB: What do you mean it was clear that you "had to go?"
KA: My mind was in one country and my body was in another, and it was clear that my body had to be where my mind and soul wanted to be, where my heart wanted to be. It was as simple as that. There was no way I could stay [in London]. I had to go. And there was no doubt that it was going to be dangerous, but that's just something we had to live with.
MB: You'd been involved in a feature film in Egypt for several years, In the Last Days of the City, for which you'd been spending a tremendous amount of time there. My sense was that was a very different kind of film than some of the Hollywood films you’ve been doing, and represented a conscious effort to reconnect or further a connection with Egypt and invest some of the time and money that you had garnered in other realms. Is that a beginning point of this journey?
KA: Yeah, absolutely. I never expected to make a film in Egypt, because...
MB: Well, tell us a little about the film. People who are reading won’t know.
KA: We started filming it in 2008, and it tells the story of a documentary filmmaker in a difficult period of his life who is making a film about his city, in which everything he loves seems to be leaving him, or he’s losing. In the course of the story, some of his friends who come from troubled cities come to Cairo and they spend the night together and talk about their various projects and their cities. His friends decide to send him footage from their cities as a way of helping him. They send him stuff from Baghdad and Beirut and Berlin, where one of them lives as a refugee. The story of the film is the making of that film, and it remains a beautiful project that altered my life completely. As I said, I was not expecting to make a film in Egypt, because the standard of Egyptian cinema, like so much over the last 30 years, has massively deteriorated, to the point that most of the films have become absurd - just really bad films. But this film came my way, and it was clear that it was a film that was coming from somewhere different, and I wanted to do something completely different. I met the director, Tamer El Said, and we agreed that we’d make the film together. At first, the plan was for the film to take three months to shoot. It ended up taking two years. That film for me, in terms of what you’re asking about, marked a massive shift. The films that I’m willing to do in a Hollywood or international context, I choose very, very carefully. For me, I situate them within a struggle to improve what’s clearly a massively discriminatory environment, in terms of the stereotyping of the region, of the people of my background. One of the things I came to believe very strongly is that, in as much as that battle is important to fight on a world stage, in Hollywood and presumably English language cinema – as much as it’s important to do it there, you also have to do it locally. We finished filming basically in December of 2010 and I returned to London, exhausted. Then, six weeks later, a revolution begins in Egypt, and I booked my ticket the next day and arrived on the night of the 27th...
KA: During In the Last Days of the City, I filmed pretty much every single demonstration that had taken place since 2008, and even been momentarily arrested in late 2008. And one of the most important things about the revolution - it started on a Tuesday, the 25th of January, but the most important day was not the 25th but the 26th, because up until the 25th, you could demonstrate and you would just go home that night and that would be it. But what happened on the 26th is that a small number of people continued, and that was what completely shifted the ground and that moment was what made me think, "I have to go." Because all that you needed were people to continue on Wednesday, Thursday would be a rest, and Friday would be a huge day, there would be no doubt about it. So even when I was booking my ticket, there was no doubt about it, there was a ticket that got me in late in the day on Friday - I had to be there before then.
MB: Tell me about the rest of the main characters in The Square.
KA: Well the main character's obviously Ahmed Hassan, who's an extraordinarily charismatic revolutionary who's also got this peaceful everyman quality to him.
MB: And he's in his twenties?
KA: He's in his twenties, and comes from the social background of the majority of the youth of this country. And then there's Magdy [Ashour], who's a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his forties. He was tortured in prison and, through the duration of the film at least, goes through a crisis of conscience in relation to the Brotherhood - their decisions in relation to playing politics with the army and the relationships between that and the perspective that revolutionaries took. And then you've got some other characters: Aida El Kashef, who is a filmmaker and a human rights lawyer; Ramy Essam, who is a musician...
MB: Of the main characters, I found Magdy especially compelling because you hear of the Muslim Brotherhood as sort of a monolith, and you never get to meet one of its members individually, never mind spend a lot of time with them. Is he really one of the first Muslim Brotherhood that you've gotten to know?
KA: As a friend, yes. And he was camped in the tent directly next to us. I remember the day we met: There was this figure, looking very security-like, looking like he was watching out, and he was just standing there. One of us, you actually see this in the film, he actually just walked up to him and gave him a cup of tea and started talking. We got to know each other, and there is no doubt that one of the things that happened in those 18 days, and Magdy says this in the film, is that a lot of the lines that had seemed deeply stratified or uncrossable, in terms of people's political identity, were broken. People got to talk, and as they got to talk, they got to see things, even if they had fundamental disagreements. Magdy and I always had fundamental disagreements, but there are very strong elements of common ground. Magdy is a person who always chose the path of his principles over his political allegiance, and that was something that in general happened to lots of people in the Brotherhood in the early days of revolution. You had lots of people who left the organization, because they were deeply unhappy with how the leadership were behaving - how it was negotiating with the military or the old establishment. Or, indeed, there were early decisions not to participate in the revolution, which they changed later on.
MB: In the end, Magdy ends up following the orders of the Brotherhood --
KA: He was actually one of the people who signed the Tamarod rebel petition asking for Morsi to resign and calling for presidential elections and so on, and there's a famous clip of him on YouTube doing so. But then, when things got so violent, he chose to fight. There's also the other aspect, which is that the Brotherhood is an organization that's very difficult to leave, financially, because they have a whole system of privileges that come with being a member. And he did think about leaving very many times over that period of time. Now things are different.
MB: In terms of crises that you went through - in terms of parsing the very complex and changing nuances of what was happening - I remember a moment when you thought the army taking control was a good thing...
KA: No, never!
MB: ...in terms of removing Morsi from power.
KA: I've had friends killed by the army and police - people who've lost their eyes, tortured. I've filmed with families of people who've been killed. I've seen the lies that have been told [skewing] the whole interpretation of June 30th [the beginning of the movement for Morsi, the Egyptian president, to resign]. Obviously it's a big turning point, and it's a very difficult thing to understand from an international context, but that doesn't mean that I support the army taking over. I think that one of the things that people misunderstand very much with the whole situation with Morsi is that internationally there's this projection of Western democracies onto the Egyptian context. What happened over Morsi's year in power is that he used the tools of democracy to disenfranchise the majority of the country, taking on extraordinary powers that made him the sole executive and legislative power in the country in order to push through a constitution that was about Brotherhoodizing the state. In any functional system, you would be able to impeach or hold accountable a president who was making that decision. But this was pushed through, so eventually the only place people can resist these dictatorial decisions becomes the street, and that's what happened on June 30th. I think a revolution is a matter of rewriting national narratives and breaking myths. The idea had always been that if an Islamist came to power, you were doomed to relive the Iranian model. That was broken on June 30th. What was not broken was the idea that the solution was in finding a savior, and it's always struck me as one of the great absurdities of June 30th: That you have what's called the largest demonstration ever, millions upon millions of people who were pointing towards one person [Egyptian Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sissi] rather than seeing their size. And that, if you like, is the journey that we're on right now - the journey to understand that our solution is not in finding a savior, but in reorganizing the structures and mechanisms of power such that the people of this country are always holding the leaders and the organizations that rule them accountable...
MB: Is that where it's headed, or has the revolution resulted in a path towards reelecting another military savior?
KA: In my mind, I thought a revolution was an event. I've discovered it's a period of time. I thought it was a total change of rulers, and what I've discovered is that a revolution is a period in time in which massive social change is possible in a very short period of time. I know I'm in a revolution still if I don't know if over the next six months whether the same leaders will be ruling me, or the same constitution will be ruling me, or the parliament, or any of those kinds of things. We’re still in that. Fundamentally, people are fighting for social justice, for their economic conditions to improve. The slogan of the revolution is “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice.” I don’t think you can take any one of those parts and deliver it by itself - they have to come together. The current political balance is built on the police state, and it has no ideas to offer. It’s also built out of the current hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is deeply embedded in the country. But there comes a certain point where that that becomes insufficient for people - that they should accept to be policed in this deeply brutal way and don’t receive anything in return other than increased poverty and increased instability and more of their rights and freedoms taken away from them. Then you can imagine that there will come a point again where they will explode.
MB: Talk a little bit about The Mosireen Collective, which is the media project you founded during the early days of the protests, and which is featured in The Square.
KA: Mosireen was born 3 years ago tomorrow - the 25th of February was two weeks after Mubarak was ousted. There was an attempt to re-occupy the square, because the prime minister and the cabinet Mubarak had put in place while he was still in power were still ruling the country. There was a small attempt to re-occupy the square, but we were brutally attacked by the Army and Special Forces. People were tortured in the Egyptian museum, and many were taken and put on military trial. We had no images to prove it - to prove what had happened that night - and we were in a context in which the entire country believed that the military and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces were the protectors of the revolution. So I - and a bunch of filmmakers and activists - got together and decided to fund a space and a collective that would dedicate itself to supporting the revolution through whatever means it could, but through alternative media and citizen media. We founded a space which gradually grew and collected a large group of people who were working in this same way. It also became one of the major places in which the archive of the revolution, the public archive of the revolution, was gathered. Later on in the year, when 28 people were killed - some of them run over by tanks and killed by the military, which claimed that we had stolen the tanks and run ourselves over with them - that was a moment which was a massive turning point. We could contradict the army's claims with video. And suddenly, Mosireen was producing a large number of videos with a wide network of people who were contributing and editing and filming, and over a couple of months we became the most watched nonprofit YouTube channel ever in Egypt, and in the world. And the process since that point has become one of continuing to do that work, but also training and workshops and building the archive.
MB: Has The Square been shown in Egypt?
KA: The Square has been seen in Egypt, and it’s been shown in many private gatherings. But it currently has not been given permission to be shown in cinemas.
MB: It’s such an interesting, challenging thing to have a film about an event that’s ongoing. That’s sort of where our conversation started. It’s not about how the war was won, because it hasn’t been won yet, it’s sort of process.
KA: Well, this is why I think the film has a right to end where it does. The story that the film tells, the key story inside it, is how people hold power accountable, and particularly through protesting. When they started making the film, there was a presumption that the film would be the story of the removal of one president, through to the election of the next. But what happened was, as they were editing, it was feeling slightly unfulfilling, but also as they were coming to completion just before Sundance, suddenly there was the massive explosion of events in which the Brotherhood tried to push a constitution through. Suddenly, they had to continue filming as the story became the removal of one president through an election and then the demand to remove the next, which was the beginning of that circle being closed. When the film was shown at Sundance and won the Audience Award, there was still clearly more work to be done. What the film shows, I think, is the very nonlinear process of what systemic change is, because we all hope and think and dream that change can travel in straight lines, but it doesn’t. Very often it’s about how you face the darker moments, rather than how you glory in the moments of success. Hopefully, as you’re watching it, you feel like you’ve understood the fundamental thing that is moving people, which is the desire for "Bread, Freedom and Social Justice" - an inability to accept life without human dignity.
Michael Bronner is Editor-at-Large for Warscapes magazine.