Documentary showcases Egypt's struggle for democracy

A startling new film by the Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim focuses on Tahrir Square from 2011 until now.

It was late into the evening when the announcement finally came. The thousands crammed into Tahrir Square in central Cairo could barely believe it. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak appeared on state television to announce he was resigning after 30 brutal years in power. Fireworks lit the night sky. Suddenly, the people of Egypt saw democracy at last within their grasp.

Yet all too quickly, jubilation turned to frustration, then anger and, ultimately, defiance as the military took control of the country, violently quashing dissenting voices. Mubarak stepped down on February 11, 2011. By March, the army was ruling with its own iron first.

"Two weeks after Mubarak was sent down, we got an SMS from the army saying there was a new law banning protests," recalls Jehane Noujaim, the award-winning Egyptian-American filmmaker whose documentary on the subject, The Square (Al Midan), had its world premiere at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "I don't know how they got my number. I assume they must have called all the telephone companies."

Noujaim teamed up with the local actor Khalid Abdalla, who had been spearheading a social networking collective to fight the new abuse of power. Armed with cameras, derring-do and a refusal to rest until people's rights had been restored, Abdalla became the go-to guy on the ground for western news outlets anxious to avoid sending reporters to the danger zone for fear of reprisals (which there famously were).

Two years on, Tahrir Square remains the centre of the struggle for justice in a mixed nation still in the throes of military rule. The film's narrative arc follows exactly that, from the moment Mubarak resigned to the present day.

"We literally finished filming a week ago and have been editing up until the last minute," Noujaim says. "You end up with a film that you haven't had a chance to look back at, where you're wondering if this is the best possible way of telling the story. Have we covered everything we need to cover?"

Their team of friends, who camped in the square, only retreating to an apartment overlooking it when the army stormed in (which they have done countless times), had five cameras among them. More than 1,000 hours of footage was shot.

The film at Sundance is both shocking in its brutality - the army runs over protesters with tanks at one point - and surprisingly frank. Army chiefs are seen arguing with protesters. A lot appears to have been caught on camera.

"Our footage got confiscated after the army attacked us. We had two cameras confiscated. We had at least four times when the footage was taken away," Noujaim says. "Our DP [director of photography] got shot in the head. He saw people shot in the eyes, through cameras."

What is evident throughout is the crucial role that social media played in spreading the news as it unfolded - virally before the authorities could do anything to stop it. Although Twitter was not utilised, both YouTube and Facebook proved invaluable in rousing interest, support and resolve, particularly when the army chose to empty the square.

"The film is all about people communicating in new ways and finding their voice and getting the information out there," Noujaim says. "When state television is saying one thing, that people are thugs in the square when, two weeks earlier, that same person is being hailed as a friend and a hero of the revolution. So you use social media to get that out there and show how people are being tortured and beaten."

As for what happens next, Noujaim remains upbeat and determined to find a natural close to her film (the cut at Sundance was so raw, it didn't even have any credits) and to make a sequel. The revolution continues, she says, so why stop now?

"There's going to be a part two," she says. "[Mohamed Morsi] pulled back on some of those [absolute] powers but the constitution went ahead with them in it. Then a referendum went out about the constitution. It's complicated. He wrote the constitution. We needed the Brotherhood coming into power to show people that we don't need a religious government. So the struggle goes on."

The Square (Al Midan) screens at Sundance this week and is in the festival's official competition for world documentaries. The winner will be announced Saturday

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