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A new documentary takes viewers inside the Egyptian revolution, from the heady protests in Tahrir Square to the subsequent political upheaval. Armed only with cameras and social media, a group of young Egyptian activists document shifting religious, sectarian and political lines. Film director Jehane Noujaim joins us to discuss.
- Jehane Noujaim Documentary Filmmaker; Director, "The Square"
“The Square” Film Trailer
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThree years ago this month as Arab Spring uprisings swept across the Muslim world, protestors gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo launching an uprising that ended the 30-year regime of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A new documentary takes viewers inside those protests. Armed only with cameras and social media, a small group of Egyptian activists document the struggle from the heady days of celebration following the fall of a repressive regime to the massive protests that ousted the country's first democratically elected president last summer.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about this Jehane Noujaim. She is an Egyptian-American director best known for her films "Control Room" and "Startup.com." Her latest documentary, "The Square," won the Audience Award at Sundance and the People's Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival. "The Square" opens this Friday at West End Cinema here in the District. Jehane Noujaim, thank you so much for joining us.
MS. JEHANE NOUJAIMThank you for having me.
NNAMDIAs we speak, Egypt is in the midst of another major bend in this long political saga. Egyptian voters last week, approved the third constitutional referendum in three years effectively validating the ouster of the countries first democratically elected leader Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Do you think there is popular support for the direction the country is heading in now?
NOUJAIMThe majority of people have been economically crushed because of the last three years of turmoil, and many people feel like this is a way to say, yes, let's move forward, stability, we all need to get jobs.
NOUJAIMBut, you know, there are problems. The fact is, is that there have been people arrested for saying that people should vote no, and that's obviously not a very fair debate if the television stations and the media have all been, you know, promoting the yes vote and the no vote is not allowed to say anything. In terms of the Constitution itself, I'm not an expert, but there are good things about the Constitution. There are some things that are improvements, they're improvements in human rights, they're improvements in the powers of the presidency.
NOUJAIMHe can no longer just pull a minister. He can no longer appoint ministry -- ministers without the approval of the prime minister which is appointed by parliament. So there is some more checks and balances than has existed before, and there are problems. There's still the fact that civilians can be tried by the military which is a major problem.
NNAMDILet's go back to the start of the uprising. History was unfolding in Cairo, and you decided to document it. How did you, first and foremost, meet your film's subjects?
NOUJAIMThe film gods were smiling down upon us because we met these incredible characters, literally in the first two weeks that I was there, before Mubarak stepped down. This is a film that came out of the Square. There was no preproduction. We met all of the people that would be making the film. It was a collaboration of people that were sleeping in tents in the Square who came together to make this movie. And we met all of our characters in the Square.
NOUJAIMAhmed, the young protagonist I fell in love with immediately. He has a joy and a charisma that just leaps out at you, and an amazing optimism despite all of the hardships he's gone through in his life. Magdy Ashour, who was with the Muslim Brotherhood for 25 years, but had an openness to speak with people who were very different and had very different beliefs than he did. Khalid Abdalla, who is an actor -- a well-known actor, who was the lead in "The Kite Runner" and in "Green Zone," could have been any place in the world, but decided he needed to be in the Square. He's still in Cairo.
NOUJAIMHis father and his grandfather are Egyptians who have been jailed by previous regimes, so he cares deeply about the country. And a number of other characters that we met during those first days in the Square.
NNAMDIGive us a sense of the moment. What was the mood in Tahrir Square like in the early days of the protest?
NOUJAIMIt was magical. To see for the first time -- I mean, I grew up in a country where emergency law was in place. This meant that you couldn't have more than three people talking about the future of the country politically without the risk of, you know, being arrested. It was against the law. If you ask people what they thought of the president, you know, people wouldn't answer.
NOUJAIMThere was a fear of who you were asking the question, who could they be talking to. And so when that fear broke, and people came to the Square, and Khalid describes a conversation at that time that he had with a taxi driver who said, look, I went there and my feeling was it's either you take me or you take me and my kids and my grandkids and my grandkids kids.
NOUJAIMSo it's better you just take me. And it was that shedding of -- that breaking of the fear and that desire to create something different, and this coming together of people who had not spoken to each other in many, many years. It was an incredible feeling being there. But at the same time, it was a fairy tale. It was a fairy tale to think that in 18 days, with the removal of a president, the whole country would change. There was a deep state that has been functioning for a very long time. The secret police were still in power, the rest of Mubarak's government was still in power, and so when all of -- when Mubarak stepped down, all the international news cameras left the square.
NOUJAIMMost people left the Square. The characters that we followed in this film came back, and they said we need to keep struggling. We need to stay in the Square, and we need to change things because the removal of Mubarak is only the tip of the iceberg.
NNAMDIOur guest is Jehane Noujaim. She is an Egyptian-American director, best known for her films "Control Room" and "Startup.com." We're talking about her latest documentary. It's called "The Square." It won an Audience Award at Sundance, and the People's Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto Film Festival. In addition to directing this film, you were one of four cinematographers on the film. It's a role you often take in your films, and it was particularly important in this film. Can you talk about that?
NOUJAIMIt's very important to film -- I feel it's very important that I'm one of the people actually on the ground filming because the film is a character-driven story where we rely on the trust of our characters that we follow. I mean, they're giving us a gift. They're opening their lives to us, allowing us to share their lives with the world, and very personal moments. So you can't -- you have to be there, and you have to be putting yourself in the same positions, to be arrested, to be sleeping in that square, to be tear gassed in order for people -- for you to gain people's trust.
NOUJAIMAnd so there were four of us filming. There was myself, there was a fantastic director of photography named Hamdy who we met in the Square, and he looked at the way that we were using the camera and he said, your white balance is all wrong, your shutter speed is off, you guys don't know what you're doing. You need a director of photography. And I'll be the directory of photography. Cressida (sp?) , who is Khalid, one of the character's wives came on and filmed which leant an incredible intimacy to Khalid's character because he was filmed by his wife in the bedroom.
NOUJAIMAnd Ahmed, the main character of the film, learns how to use the camera halfway through the film, and the camera for him becomes a weapon, a way of collecting evidence. And much of our footage has been used both for news stations and also in court cases. So there were four of us mainly filming the film, and we all came together in that square. I met our producer, Karim Amer, because he was setting up a stage in the Square and I followed him for a couple of weeks thinking he's an interesting character because he was setting up a stage that people could come up and read poetry on.
NOUJAIMAnd I followed him for about a week, and afterwards he said, you know, I don't want to be a character in your film, but you desperately need a producer, so I will produce it. And that's how this film came together.
NNAMDIAnd every single one of you was arrested, shot at, or tear gassed at one point or another? You were arrested yourself three times.
NNAMDIHad a bunch of cameras smashed.
NOUJAIMThat's correct. And the Army has confiscated a lot of footage, so they probably have their own film that they could make from that.
NNAMDIYou lived with your film's subjects for nearly three years, and that gives this film a powerful immediacy. We are in Tahrir Square while these events unfold. What were you hoping to show the audience? Precisely that?
NOUJAIMI was hoping to give the experience of actually having witnessed revolution, having witnessed the struggle that it takes to change one's country to fight for something so much bigger than yourself. You know, nobody witnesses the Martin Luther King or the Gandhi or the Mandela when they feel like they've lost everything, and they have, you know, that they failed. But what's important is when that person decides that they're going to come back the next day despite having felt like they've lost everything.
NOUJAIMAnd the staying power is what's important in a movement like this. And we wanted to show that. We wanted people to feel that amazing experience of, you know, it's the closest thing that you can do to time travel, you know, it's the closest thing to time travel, for people to be able to, you know, a hundred years from now look back on a film like this and feel like they were in the middle Tahrir Square at this very crucial moment in time.
NNAMDIIn the early days, the protestors were viewed as heroes. How did public perception evolve after the fall of Hosni Mubarak?
NOUJAIMOh, the public perception of people changed quite quickly. First of all, the government wanted Tahrir and the country to move back to normal. The Army had, you know, gotten rid of Mubarak which was not a loss for them because they really didn't want to see Mubarak's son taking power, but then they wanted to as Khalid's dad says, have the country go back to its own corrupt ways. So they didn't want people sitting protesting in a square.
NOUJAIMThere were thugs that were sent to break up the sit-in, the people in the Square were labeled as thugs, as prostitutes, as spies, you know, so it's actually a universal struggle that protestors have around the world. And it's very interesting to see...
NNAMDII see in the film a police officer actually making that point, taking it upon himself to characterize all of the people who were in the Square in that way.
NOUJAIMThat's right. And...
NNAMDIAs if he had, like, objective knowledge of this.
NOUJAIMInteresting. Because you talk to that military guy and at the very end of a very long interview where he characterizes and tells all of his opinions about the Square, Ahmed, who is interviewing, asks him, so when were you last in the Square? And he said, oh, no, I've never been to the Square. I've watched all of this on television.
NNAMDIBut he spoke with such authority. The film also reveals the complexity of the political and sectarian lines, and as good as much as much of the reporting was on the events during the Arab Spring, it's something that may have been lost watching those events.
NOUJAIMI think when you follow the news about these events, even if you follow them quite closely, you see the Million Man March, you see the bloodiest battle, you see the election, but you don't really understand the human stories behind the news. You don't see the human face, you don't see the complexity of what people are going through that lead to these moments, and I think that's what you're able to see in a long form documentary. We have the luxury of being able to be there with our characters and follow them during their most trying moments and their most successful, magical moments.
NNAMDIThe role of the Muslim Brotherhood is a complex one throughout the revolution and after. This film explores the role of the Brotherhood very powerfully through a man named Madgy who is himself conflicted over the situation. Can you tell us a little bit about him and about how the trajectory of the Muslim Brotherhood kind of changed after the revolution?
NOUJAIMThe Brotherhood have enjoyed a popularity in Egypt that has been gaining over the past 50 years without having one political post, and this is partly because they've provided a lot of the social services that the government, frankly, was not providing. So fascinating that the Brotherhood has lost such popularity after having only one year of being in political power. But you do see this with Magdy's relationship with the Brotherhood. He's with the Brotherhood for 25 years, a loyal Brotherhood member, and when you see it, you see in the film that his relationship to the Brotherhood begins to change.
NOUJAIMHe begins to question the Brotherhood and what they're asking him to do. And he, at one point, defies them. When they tell him that he can't go down to the Square, he tells them, no, I am following my conscience. I am supporting the secular friends that I have made, and I'm challenging. And he was actually kicked out of the Brotherhood for a little while. Near the end of the film, however, when the Brotherhood is persecuted and when they're in the sit-in and the sit-in is attacked, he once again goes back to the Brotherhood and says, this is important that these are people that have supported me.
NOUJAIMThey've paid my bills, they've supported my kids, and I need to go back and protect them now. And it's very, you know, it's interesting. You see that -- you saw this among people on the street. There were many people that voted for Morsi that when he came to power, and when the Brotherhood came to power, people started to see them as, you know, not this romantic underground organization, but doing -- making deals with the Army and doing -- they looked at them as a politician, just like any other politician.
NOUJAIMAnd that's the importance of allowing anybody, no matter what your background, to be out in the open, to be allowed to run for office, and that's what I think is a very, very problematic thing, hugely problematic in terms of what's happening now, is the Brotherhood is going back underground, and this is what's given rise to people like (unintelligible) and, you know, people who have decided that the only way is to use violence. And for all that I, you know, I don't support the Brotherhood, I don't like their tactics, but they haven't been violent for the last 30, 40 years.
NNAMDILast June 30th, the largest protest in the history of humanity took place across Egypt demanding the ouster of Mohammad Morsi, the first democratically elected leader. What was the issue was his leadership?
NOUJAIMMohammad Morsi was...
NNAMDIWe only have about a minute left, by the way.
NOUJAIMMorsi -- when Morsi came to power, and I know this covered widely in the news, but at a certain point he declared that he had, you know, absolute power. He declared himself, you know, greater powers that Mubarak, a dictator of sorts. And so for people to have elected their first democratically elected leader, this was a huge blow to people. And this is why you see all of our characters, some of whom had supported Morsi over the other option coming into power. You saw all of them in the streets, once again protesting and saying we need to hold leadership accountable and this movement will continue until leadership is held accountable.
NNAMDIBut you chose to end the film at the point where Mohammad Morsi is ousted. Why did you end it there? We got 30 seconds.
NOUJAIMThis was the arc of the characters that we had followed, and we had followed them going through a process of dealing a major blow to the ex-regime, a major blow to the military, and a major blow to the Brotherhood, which are these structures that are the deep state that is in place. I mean, really what this battle is between is between disorganized social movements and these more organized fascist movements like the Brotherhood and like the Army. That's the binary that exists.
NNAMDIJehane Noujaim is an Egyptian-American director. Her latest documentary is "The Square." Thank you so much for joining us.
NOUJAIMThank you for having me.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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