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Protesters, filmmaker traverse Egypt's transition in 'The Square'

An aerial view shows security forces firing teargas to disperse a crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square November 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El G
An aerial view shows security forces firing teargas to disperse a crowd in Cairo's Tahrir Square November 19, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El G

By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Three years after Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim waded into Cairo's Tahrir Square to document the early rumblings of revolution, the army governs Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is back underground and protesters are on trial.

But as her award-winning film "The Square" makes its debut to a wide audience next week via streaming company Netflix's 40 million subscribers, Noujaim believes Egypt is definitely not back at square one, although it is a dark time in the country.

"Everyone feels like this was an incredibly important process that needed to happen and we will never go back to where we were three years ago," Noujaim told Reuters.

"The whole country," she added, "has gotten a political education."

For the viewer, "The Square" may be like a crash course in understanding Egypt today, taught by protesters who first started gathering in Tahrir Square in January 2011 to call for the end of President Hosni Mubarak's three decades of rule.

For Noujaim, a 39-year-old who made the acclaimed 2004 documentary "Control Room" about broadcaster Al Jazeera, it was a lesson in patience and figuring out when to wrap the film. When she was at the Sundance Film Festival collecting the audience award for "The Square" a year ago, she already decided she had to go back to Egypt to keep filming.

The "work in progress" screened at Sundance covered the fall of Mubarak and ended with the election of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Mursi as president in mid-2012. But then, activists returned to the streets at the beginning of 2013 and the military deposed Mursi in July.

"Mursi was using the tools of democracy to basically create another dictatorship, this time a dictatorship that relied on manipulating people through religion," said Noujaim.

The turn of events, in her opinion, made the story she wanted to tell more interesting.

"It became about the fight against fascism, whether the face of that racism was Mubarak or the military or the Muslim Brotherhood," she said.

'OPERATING ON FUMES'

In that fight, Noujaim quickly found a cast of characters in Tahrir Square from diverse backgrounds that allowed her to build from the very beginning a character-driven narrative. She had, she said, "the film gods looking down upon us."

Three characters take center stage: Ahmed Hassan, a working class man in his mid-20s, street smart but struggling to get a job; Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor in his mid-30s who starred in "The Kite Runner" and who forms a bridge between activists and the international media; and Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his mid-40s tortured under Mubarak who goes through a crisis of faith about the revolution and the Brotherhood.

"When you are making these films, they are unfunded, we are basically operating on fumes, we are there following people for two to three years," Noujaim said, adding "so you had better be sharing people who are worth sharing with the world."

Noujaim, who grew up 10 minutes from Tahrir Square, also assembled her crew at the square, knowing that she couldn't hire people from outside and ask them to take the risks of filming in the middle of the revolution.

"Everybody on our film team was either chased down the street by police or army, or arrested or shot at one point or another," she said.

Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan called the film "a compelling, inside look" and said "it wouldn't exist except for the passion and determination of filmmaker Jehane Noujaim."

"The Square" won the top documentary prize at the Toronto Film Festival in September, best feature from the International Documentary Association last month and is one of 15 documentary features shortlisted for an Oscar ahead of January 16 nominations.

Perhaps most importantly, it was the first major documentary acquired by Netflix as part of its strategy to build up original programming. Noujaim said Netflix was the best choice to reach a wide and diverse audience because its streaming subscription costs $8 a month.

Netflix begins streaming the documentary in all its territories on January 17 and has agreed to allow the film to have theatrical release in eight to 10 U.S. cities. It will also be distributed in countries where Netflix does not operate.

Meanwhile, there is one key place where it cannot yet be screened: Egypt.

The film was submitted to state censors and Noujaim is awaiting clearance nearly three months later. Knowing what is at stake, she speaks carefully about the current state of affairs in Egypt, where new presidential elections could happen as soon as April.

"It's the most important thing for us and our whole team of Egyptian filmmakers that this film is shown in Egypt," Noujaim said. "So we are going to do everything in our power to make that happen."

(Editing by Eric Kelsey and Ken Wills)

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