In January 2011, thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets of Cairo, calling for the ouster of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak. People converged in the center of the city known as Tahrir Square.
That city center became a focal point for the revolution. It's now at the center of an Oscar-nominated feature documentary called, "The Square."
Filmmakers spent more than two years recording the volatile events and created what has become the first Egyptian movie to be nominated for an Academy Award. Director Jehane Noujaim and producer Karim Amer joins the show to talk about the project.
The story opens with Ahmed, a young man who is one of the many caught up in the excitements of the events of 2011. Tell us about him:
Jehane Noujaim: "Ahmed is an incredible person. I met him on the square, all of us met in the square, the entire team met in the square. Didn't know each other beforehand and he was the son of somebody who sold vegetables, a woman who was illiterate. He went down to the square like many Egyptians, searching for an opportunity, searching for change, a hand in his future. And he's really the street poet. He gathers people around him, debates the future of Egypt and is incredibly charismatic and the wonderful person that led us through this story."
Karim Amer: "He's really an unbelievable person. I think what happened to him, like so many young Egyptians like him, Mubarak's biggest crime, the dictator who was running Egypt for 30 years, was not genocide per se, but it was the death of hope for generations of Egyptians. Like many Egyptians, Ahmed felt that he was trapped in a story with no hope, where there was no future and what happened in that Square was the reversal, was for the first time in Egypt, the land of the pharaohs, the pyramid was flipped upside down and people felt that they could be the authors of the future and I think that was the voice that roared in that Square and the voice that Ahmed and other like him are unwilling to give up, that sense of authorship for the future."
Along with Ahmed, the film follows a number of Egyptians as these events develop. One of them a young woman named Aida. Who is she?
JN: "She's the one person that I did know from before, because she has been part of the protest movements for a long time. I met her when I was making a previous film about the street protests in Egypt, about three women fighting for change called "Egypt We're Watching You." She's a young filmmaker, absolutely unwilling to compromise on her principles. She as well is a very strong woman fighting for change in Egypt and she allowed us to follow.
"She like other characters gave us their trust, their lives and is a very beautiful person. She is very dear to my heart as is everybody that you follow. You follow people because you fall in love with them, you fall in love with their dreams. And they entrust you to give a platform for those dreams and especially in this time in Egypt, which is a very dark and divisive time, it's so important that those dreams be remembered and we have been written by young people across Egypt saying that this film and the people in this film have given them hope again for the future."
How did you wind up choosing this group? I can imagine there probably were lots of stories you could have chosen.
JN: "What these people share is very principled, they stick to their beliefs, and they're refusing to compromise on those principles. Even though they are from very different backgrounds, they're struggling for very basic human rights and social justice. The film gods were really in our side. I mean, we were all sleeping next to each other in tents, we all met each other in the square, and we showed them that you rely, that you get access to characters because they grow to trust you. And the reason why they trusted us is because we were sleeping next to them. We were tear gassed, jailed, I was jailed three times, ran after by police."
KA: "It's very hard to make a film when the director keeps getting arrested. Jehane would often be the only women filming or the only woman sometimes in this craziness of the street battles we were engrossed in, but as she said, we were very much a part of this movement. I mean, this was our story as well. So we weren't just visiting, catching the headline and leaving and I think that gave us trust. And also it's important to show diversity of people like you know, we had Khalid, who's one of the main characters, was the lead actor in "The Kite Runner" and is a Hollywood actor, and he puts his entire career on hold to stand in that square.
I mean, he could be anywhere, he doesn't need to be standing there, but he is there day in and day out because he realizes that what's happening right now is a founding period, it's the building of a new nation, the building of a new social contract and that there's a paradigm shift happening around the world. The successes and failures of these squares is interconnected because anytime we allow for infractions on human rights and civil liberties, we're tearing at that fundamental thread of humanity that holds us together."
There's a moment when the mood shifts in the film? Can you tell us about that?
KA: "It was the beginning of the realization that there's the fairytale story of change and there's the real story of change. The fairytale story of change is that in 18 days, people can come down, remove a dictator and democracy happens happily ever after. And I think the real story of change that we all kind of were exposed to is that change is a difficult ongoing process and we have to kind of move away from this story that we're stuck in of changes' greatest hits, where we want to see Martin Luther King say "I have a dream" and we want to see Gandhi liberating India and we want to see the end of Apartheid."
JN: "You don't see the lonely times. You don't see the time when Martin Luther King, Gandhi and these people felt alone and nobody supported them. It was important to show that so people really understand what it takes. So of the most incredible responses we have received have been from people who have been involved in the civil rights movement in this country, who have said to us, "While we were fighting, while we were marching, it felt like everything was going at a snail's pace and nothing was changing while we were in the middle of it." And it's only by hindsight, by looking back that we realize how much we were actually able to do."
Eventually you had to stop filming even though the story was ongoing. How did you decide it was time to stop?
JN: "We could be filming this story forever, but we wanted to release it, we wanted to release it quickly because we had the ability to change the conversation on the ground now and release it wildly and release it in Egypt and around the world. But we came to an end, where we did, because this is where our characters' journey had completed a full arch, where they had come to the place where they said, "There's no leader, this knight in shinning armor that's going to come down from the Heavens and save us." It's about having a active citizenry that keeps pushing. Rights are never given to you, they are always taken and people decided, our characters said, "It's about holding government accountable."