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More than three months after missing out on an Oscar, and well over a year since it first screened at Sundance, Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim’s acclaimed documentary The Square finally premiered in Egypt.
The film chronicles the Egyptian revolution from its epicenter in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — which began with the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak in early 2011 through the election of Mohamed Morsi before ending with his violent removal from office last summer.
Noujaim’s film screened Friday evening at the Ismailia International Film Festival for Documentaries and Shorts, now into its 17th edition in the northeastern port city on the west bank of the Suez Canal.
Released on Netflix across the U.S. in January, The Square is already an award winner at Sundance, Toronto, the International Documentary Association and Dubai, among others.
But up until now it has struggled to get a screening in its home country, with many blaming censorship issues due its fierce criticism of the Egyptian military for its brutality during the revolution, in which over 1,000 people have been killed since its beginnings in January 2011.
A screening in December in the Panorama of the European Film festival in Cairo was pulled at the 11th hour, with organizers citing technical issues.
Noujaim later claimed that an official request to the censorship authorities to show the film in Egypt never received a reply, a move that suggested the film had been officially banned.
The premiere at Ismailia came at a somewhat contentious time; just over a week since a controversial presidential election in which former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took over 96 percent of the vote, and four days since the famed TV satirist Bassem Youssef — known as the Egyptian Jon Stewart — ended his hugely popular show El-Bernameg due to pressures of censorship.
The show had previously been suspended following complaints that it had insulted supporters of el-Sisi and the military.
But despite any concerns over its content, The Square’s first official Egyptian screening (pirated copies are believed to have been widely distributed in the country) was well received by the audience, with one member suggesting it was probably the best documentary ever made in the country.
It was attended by one of the stars of the film, the young human-rights demonstrator Ahmed Hassan.
An open-air screening of the film later in the day also went down well among the mostly Egyptian crowd, an unscheduled pause midway through simply being to wait for the call to prayer from a nearby mosque to end.
“We actually had no problem with the censorship authority, as the festival is put on by the ministry of culture,” said festival director and prolific Egyptian producer Mohamed Hefzy.
The festival, which runs through Sunday, is considered to be a hugely important event for the growth of Arab cinema.
It opened June 3 with another potentially touchy documentary: Jews of Egypt — End of a Journey is Amir Ramses’ sequel to Jews of Egypt about the country’s once-thriving Jewish community, which was banned by security agencies just a day before it was to go on general release in 2013.
Other films on the schedule have included Swedish director Goran Olsson’s Berlinale prize-winning film Concerning Violence, Palestinian doc My Love Awaits Me By the Sea by Mais Darwazah and a three-film tribute to Syrian auteur Mohamed Malas, who was to be the festival’s jury head but was denied an entry visa into Egypt at the last minute.
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