'The Square' Filmmaker Leaks Oscar Nominee Online, Risking Egypt Censors' Wrath

Matt Furman
Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujaim's "The Square," Netflix's first Oscar nominee -- and the first ever from Egypt -- has found its audience.

A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Whether or not Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square wins the Academy Award for best documentary feature, it already is a hit in Egypt -- and it hasn't even been released there yet. Noujaim estimates nearly 1 million people already have seen it online. Egyptian censors have yet to rule on its admission to the country convulsed by the revolt the film both chronicles and helps propel.

The Square, which offers a street-level view of the Egyptian revolution that erupted in Tahrir Square in 2011, features four characters caught up in the real-life drama: Khalid Abdalla, who runs Egypt's biggest media collective and also starred in 2007's The Kite Runner; a young human-rights demonstrator named Ahmed Hassan, who suffered a bloody head injury during the course of the demonstrations; the pragmatic Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour; and Ramy Essam, a protest singer who inspired people in the square and then was tortured by authorities. Noujaim, 39, was born in Cairo to an Egyptian father and American mother but raised since she was 10 in the United States. A protege of documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, she has earned awards for her new film from Sundance, the International Documentary Association and the DGA.

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In Egypt, says Noujaim, "Our main character, Khalid, can't walk down the street without being stopped for a picture. People are very sweet. They say, 'We're very sorry to pirate your film -- we promise to buy it when it's on DVD -- but how is it fair the rest of the world gets to see it and we don't?' It's on Netflix and in 40 other countries. We naively tried to take the pirated sites down, but each would multiply. We found about 50 links with about 40,000 to 50,000 viewers each, another 250,000 on BitTorrent, plus Vimeo. Thousands have signed up on Facebook pages for screenings in coffeehouses and private screenings. In Ukraine, 5,000 people watched it."

So instead of battling the pirates, Noujaim and her producers have decided to make a high-resolution, Arabic-language version of The Square available in Egypt by streaming it online via Distrify on Feb. 14. "If the authorities stand behind this film," she says, "they'll be allowing a film that contains views they would not necessarily stand behind -- a step toward freedom of speech."

From the beginning, making the movie embroiled Noujaim in battles with the authorities, who confiscated her cameras when she landed in Cairo in 2011. "But we met Muhammed Hamdy in the square, who became our DP and gave us a lesson in the tents." He provided Canon EOS 60D and 5D cameras for four men and women, including Noujaim. Says the director, the cameras had "a cinematic quality, and a kind of invisibility. They were only confiscated when there were run-ins with the army or police." When a bleeding Hassan was being stitched up, she recalls, "he pulled his SD [memory] card out of his pocket with a smile and handed it to me, saying, 'Damn, my head hurts, but can't wait till you all see this.' "

The footage she and her crew shot became part of the unfolding story they were covering. When Cressida Trew, another crewmember, captured shots of police dumping a body, the footage immediately was posted online and picked up by international news reports. "Within two hours, the square was packed with people standing in solidarity," says the director.

Noujaim is planning to develop two more projects from the 2011-to-2013 footage. One will be about Egypt's first presidential campaign, and the other will be about Ragia Omran, the human rights lawyer in The Square. "It's a dark and divided time for Egyptians," says Noujaim, "but many have written on Twitter and Facebook that the film has given them hope in the midst of the darkness."