It’s fitting that Jehane Noujaim, director of the documentary “The Square” about the revolution in Egypt, quoted Margaret Mead in conversation when describing the impact that a dedicated few have had in creating change in Egypt: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Noujaim and a small group of people helped organize the film’s first screening in Los Angeles on Oct. 11 at actress Maria Bello’s Santa Monica home. The doc was shown in Bello’s front yard on a portable screen that will be used to tour the film throughout the Middle East. The movie, which follows a handful of revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, is currently censored in Egypt.
Noujaim was arrested three times while filming the doc during the course of two and a half years. Upon finding copies of her documentary “Egypt: We Are Watching You” (about three women fighting for political change and social justice) in her car at a checkpoint, military intelligence detained Noujaim and confiscated her camera. When allowed a short break, Noujaim went back to her car to throw the remaining batch of DVDs away discretely, ultimately shoving them down a drain in the bathroom.
“Really, like a movie, this guy that had been cleaning the bathrooms comes into the interrogation, walks in with a shred of the DVD and holds it in the air like a trophy and basically says, ‘This woman is hiding something,’” Noujaim recalled. “And at this point, I just broke and I said, ‘I have nothing to lose, I’m just going to be honest with these guys.’”
In retrospect, the Egyptian American director said her actions mirrored the protesters’ decisions to voice their grievances.
“The breaking of fear that I felt at that moment was a tiny, tiny, tiny example of what many Egyptians felt when they went to that square,” she said. “I will not be silent anymore. I will not hide what I feel anymore. Whatever happens to me, I am going to sit in that square and I am going to say what I believe and I am gonna take the consequences because I’m not willing to have children in this country that I feel is completely corrupt.”
When she was arrested again at the height of the rebels’ battle with authorities following the military coup, lawyer and human rights activist Ragia Omran tweeted a picture of the missing person. When Noujaim was permitted to use the restroom after seven hours, someone who had seen the tweet spotted her en route to the bathroom and sent Omran word of her location.
Her experience exemplified the role social media and technology at large played in the revolution.
“One person with a phone can capture a shot of injustice, upload it or tweet it, and someone else can share and it and people will go down to the streets,” the film’s producer, Karim Amer, said. “The more we start to interconnect like that, the more we can start to know the power of witness. And when people know the power of witness, they know the power of change and they know that they can be the conduit of change themselves.”
Amer said the film, which won the people’s choice award for documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival in January as a work in progress, has resonated with audiences because it’s a global story.
“If you talk to our characters, they’ll tell you, we’re not just fighting for Egypt; we’re fighting for a change that young people around the world have to all be a part of, because if young people in America aren’t active, and if young people in Brazil aren’t active, and if young people in the U.K. aren’t active, then we’re not gonna to be able to reach a world where we can speak to one another and we hold our governments accountable. And that’s really what ‘The Square’ means. It’s about being unwilling to relinquish your right to your future.”
Bello was informed about the film by her then 11-year-old son, who saw a clip of the film at Creative Visions Foundation two years ago. Once she watched it, she reacted just as passionately as he did, especially when she realized Noujaim also helmed 2004’s “Control Room.” The “Prisoners” star described the movie as a spiritual exercise in entertainment.
“It’s not only a revolutionary film, but they’re revolutionary human beings,” Bello said of Noujaim and Amer. “To have that first-hand account, that isn’t any side of the aisle. It’s not Fox News telling you something or Bloomberg or CNN. You have real people on the ground showing us the true story of actually what happened. And for me that’s everything. Truth is everything.”
Exec producer Jodie Evans, co-founder and co-director of the feminist anti-war organization Code Pink, echoed Bello’s sentiment, praising Noujaim’s talent as director.
“She has such a great capacity to be with the story and let it unfold and then be able to take you through the story, she’s magical at it,” Evans said. “She’s done it again, where you’re there. It takes you into your own empathy with the experience.”
Documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, director Kirby Dick, and producers Lawrence Bender and Patricia Foulkrod were among the guests on hand for the night of “nibbles, libations, and revolution.”
(Pictured above: Jehane Noujaim, Maria Bello and Karim Amer)