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An Oscar Nominee, But Unwelcome At Home In Cairo

Khalid Abdalla, an activist and actor (<em>The Kite Runner, Green Zone</em> and <em>United 93),</em> and Ahmed Hassan protest in Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-nominated documentary, <em>The Square</em>.
Khalid Abdalla, an activist and actor (The Kite Runner, Green Zone and United 93), and Ahmed Hassan protest in Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square.

On a cool Cairo evening, the cast and crew of The Squareput on an informal screening of the film for their friends. Many of them are in the documentary, which chronicles three years of political unrest and revolution centered on this city's now-iconic Tahrir Square; all of them experienced some part of the events that unfolded there.

The small audience in this office knows well how the film's story unfolds: first, the protests that led to the ouster of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, then the tumultuous interim period under a military council, followed by the election of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Finally, there's Morsi's overthrow by the military last summer, after huge protests against his rule.

But these viewers are among the few in Egypt who have seen the film; though it's been released in more than 40 other countries, it hasn't received government approval to be shown in theaters here.

"Nobody asked for a permission or a license for the film till now," says Ahmed Awaad, Egypt's head of censorship and the official in charge of vetting films applying for general release.

But members of the cast and crew, including producer Karim Amer, say they have applied — and they've become embroiled in a monthslong bureaucratic nightmare.

"The issue has become much larger than we ever expected," Amer says.

Producers have encountered the kinds of roadblocks and red tape that would make it difficult for any new independent filmmaker in Egypt. These rules, Amer says, aren't designed to encourage the craft, "but to kind of keep it enclosed to a very small network of people that are running the film industry."

Khalid Abdalla, an Egyptian-British actor and activist and one of the main characters in the film, sees the problem with the censorship board as a political issue framed as a bureaucratic one.

"I mean, are you trying to tell me that if this film was a film that was celebrating how great the current political establishment is, and it had been nominated for an Oscar, that we would be waiting?" he asks.

The documentary shows harrowing footage of military and police violence against protesters. At the screening, during one scene of intense violence, a few in the audience quietly wept.

Jehane Noujaim, the director, points out that these are scenes many Egyptians have already seen — but "what the film does," she says, "is it humanizes the struggle of Egyptians and really shows what the human story was behind those scenes."

The Square follows the relationship between two left-wing activists and a Muslim Brotherhood supporter who met in Tahrir Square in early 2011 during the protests that led to the fall of then-President Mubarak.

"We followed ordinary, regular people living through the last few years," Noujaim says, "and they were conflicted, and they were emotional about what was going on. And I think for people in Egypt to see that, and to also remember what we were originally fighting for, is really important in this time" — a time when leftists and Islamists alike are being smeared in the local media and by the government. Authorities have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, and critics of the government are routinely viewed as traitors.

Although The Square has received numerous accolades, some critics say it paints too rosy a picture given the current situation. But actor Khalid Abdalla says it simply allows for some perspective.

"When we talk about now, now is definitely a dark moment for people, and the film is not just giving them hope," he says. "It's also, if you like, allowing this kind of bird's-eye view as well of the cycle of change, and reminding people, 'Oh, we've been here before, and we got through it before.' "

Producer Karim Amer says the Oscar nomination will only increase interest in the film among Egyptians. Pirated copies of the documentary are spreading fast throughout the country.

"The stage that the academy provides in bringing global attention to stories is really such a powerful stage," Amer says. "And being the first Egyptian film to be nominated, it completely elevates the story into a space that makes it very difficult for any groups who are trying to stop it to stop it in the Middle East."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.