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Director Noujam Opens 'The Square' at NYFF

noujamDirected by Award-winning Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim, The Square is an exhilarating cinéma vérité portrait of the chaotic and inspiring events as they unfolded in Tahrir Square beginning in 2011 to overthrown Hosni Mubarak and moving beyond that to the ongoing, current political situation.

Noujaim is best know for her critically acclaimed documentaries Control Room (2004) and Egypt: We Are Watching You (2007). The feature is included in the impressive slate of documentaries presented by this 2013 New York Film Festival. During a recent press conference at Walter Reade Theater, the filmmaker and producer Karim Amer, who she met in Tahrir Square in January 2011 while shooting this film, discussed the challenges of covering the revolution in Egypt, which is constantly changing and evolving.

“The revolution continues,” the director said. “All the characters that we followed are still fighting” but “but we’ve gotten to a place where it can be show 10 years,50 years from now, and still stand as an emotional and historical document of the revolutionary events in Tahrir Square.”

Noujaim said she was at the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 25, where she had gone in hopes of getting access to Hosni Mubarak, when the protests in the Square began. “None of them showed up in Switzerland because Egypt did explode.” Noujaim got the first plane back to find that the army was already in the streets. “I was stopped by military intelligence. I had brought back a number of DVDs of my last film in 2007, they saw that and immediately thought there’s something wrong with this person because what she is doing bringing in 10 films that say ‘Egypt: We Are Watching You’ as the country’s exploding.”

A particular challenge in making a film about a struggle that is ongoing is staying current. “I’m checking Facebook and I’m continually updating as things are changing as we’re editing it and it was an exciting but kind of crazy process and I think we’re going to try to figure out some way of releasing it where we can give updates for little pieces that we’ll upload continually,” said the director.  

Amer, who is described in the movie’s production notes as an Egyptian-American entrepreneur, was protesting in the Square and posting updates on his blog when he met Noujaim, who asked him to join the filmmaking team. The activist filmmaker said, “The main battle cry of this revolution was that the people demand the downfall of the regime.”

The first part of documentary is about the bringing down of a dictator and the election of a president, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. But two weeks before they took the film to Sundance, the filmmakers said all of characters in the film were back on the streets protesting because Morsi claimed dictatorial powers and tried to rewrite the constitution.

the-squareThe power of Noujaim’s film is that she tells the story of these events through the first-hand experiences of a charismatic group of young activists, both secular and Muslim brotherhood, who risked their lives in the protests, where they were often attacked and brutalized by the military. These protagonists are an articulate and appealing group and you can’t help rooting for them. Often they also had their own video cameras and blogs and posted startling images and stories of the military brutality online.

“Putting this together when everyone in the square had cameras was both a huge blessing because we had people that wanted to give us footage that we were working with and we were providing footage for other people,” Noujaim said.

“But a lot of times it felt like we were not only making a film but there were so many times when our characters were long gone, but I had to stay for several more hours because I was the only person with a camera in the Square and everybody said ‘You’re the only witness, you have to stay here’ and this happened with all the filmmakers on the project.”

Noujaim’s team edited their film in an office that was five minutes away from the Square where the revolutionaries in the film often crashed. The activists also often offered their advice to the filmmakers on what scenes were essential and should not be cut.

For Noujaim, the editing was tough. “It was a very intense process and I guess in terms of crafting the story we really had to take ourselves, we had to move away from Egypt and we had to look at what we had and decide, this is what has to be a film that is going to last for many, many years and it has to be the characters’ journey.”

Noujaim focused the film on this charismatic group of revolutionaries thanks to advice given to her by legendary documentarian D. E. Pennebaker, who was present at the press conference.

After the Q&A, I asked the director in the lobby if she ever feared for her safety when she was often one of very few women in the Square. “You’re around people that if they got arrested they would spend their lives in prison,” she said. “They would be beaten badly and you know that you would be, as somebody who has an American passport, as well as an Egyptian passport, you know that you have options of getting out and yet these people are fighting for your country alongside you. It gives you an incredible strength.” She added, “There were a number of times when everybody on this team who made the film has been either shot at, arrested, injured, tortured, in some way.”

She had some close calls. She was arrested three times and one time spent three days in custody, driven around for about eight hours in one of the big huge police cars. “I was arrested with Magdy (Ashour), the Muslim Brotherhood character, and through the whole thing he was talking to me through the barrier that divided me from 40 men, and he was saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, it will be fine,’ singing songs, getting me through.”

The Square will screen as part of the 51st New York Film Festival, Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013 at 8:30 p.m. at the Walter Reade Theater.

12 Years a Slave Wins TIFF 2013 People’s Choice Award

Winning at the highly watched, well-hyped Toronto International Film Festival can do wonderful things for a career, and speaks plenty about future Oscar nominations. At TIFF, the festival’s films are voted on by an audience instead of a Jury. Recent films given the People’s Choice Award  include Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and Argo. That bodes well for 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen and his actors and crew, a well put together ensemble that numbers Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, the protagonist and author of the memoir that 12 Years a Slave is based on. Co-starring in the film, Michael Fassbender is the cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps who oversees Northrup after purchasing him off 
William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher and slave owner. Brad Pitt, Quvenzhané Wallis, Paul Giamatti and other stars also lend their talents to this coherent ensemble. With the stake so high in talent, it's no wonder the film has received acclaim from all of its viewers.

Couple great source material and superb with striking cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, wonderful writing by John Ridley, and superb direction by Steve McQueen, and it’s little wonder that 12 Years a Slave did take the cake at TIFF this year. In an exploration of slavery that damns nearly every white character on screen while consistently reaffirming Northrup’s existent humanity, even under duress,, McQueen has set himself and his cast up well for Oscar season. Many Oscar tipsters have even mentioned that McQueen, the London-born Holland resident, could end up being the first a black director to win Best Director at the Academy Awards.

Before TIFF, 12 Years a Slave premiered as a sneak peak in the Telluride Film Festival, and has since been confirmed for the 2013 BFI London Film Festival as well. It’ll get commercial release by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Regency Enterprises on October 18, 2013. Given the film’s popularity with critics, we can be sure to expect more film festival showings and even more acclaim for 12 Years a Slave and its cast in the coming months. To see a trailer for this wonderful drama, click here.

12 Years a Slave is directed by Steve McQueen and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Quvenzhane Wallis, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Scoot McNairy, Garrett Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, Dwight Henry, and Michael K. Williams. It hits theaters on October 18.

Wrapping Up the Seattle International Film Festival


From Thursday, April 25 (with an official start date of May 16) to Sunday, June 9, the Seattle International Film Festival has screened 447 films, 31 of which I had a chance to watch. From opening with Joss Whedon's Shakespearean piece Much Ado About Nothing, which I called "a one-and-done modernized adaptation proud to bear its fuzzy flaws," to Sofia Coppola's teens-on-a-tear, The Bling Ring, this festival had diversity and volume on its side more than anything.

Bending between the genres of drama and horror, sci-fi and coming-of-age, thrillers to a wealth of documentaries, hearing stories pulled from France, England, South Africa, Brazil, Australia, America, Paraguay and Denmark from new filmmakers and seasoned veterans alike, we walked the world within these films.

Read more: Wrapping Up the Seattle...

A Language Lesson at Cannes

past posterIt's generally a big step when a filmmaker decides to make a film in a language that is not her/his mother tongue. There are many obstacles in addition to a language barrier: let’s face it, even if one is fluent in another language, there are cultural differences going on. But in these days of international co-productions, when money from another country can require shooting in foreign locations, as well as telling another kind of story, it is becoming more and more common. In addition, many filmmakers actually film in other languages and other countries because they don’t see any barriers.

For others, living in a new country with a different culture (and language) becomes a breeding ground for new film ideas that demand they be of that nation. To be clear, we are not talking about performers acting in another language; that’s been happening for years, and is still in evidence in Cannes with examples such as Berenice Bejo in Asghar Farhadi’s The Past and Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen (last year’s Cannes best actor winner for The Hunt) in the French production of Michael Kohlhaas.

This year at Cannes quite a few filmmakers have bridged that divide, each with a unique result. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn, who has made films in English before – he was last in Cannes in 2011 with Drive which starred Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver – shot his latest film, Only God Forgives, in Thailand. Starring Gosling – again –the film is in English and Thai and it deals with a different culture (that’s the Thai culture, in addition to the culture of violence and revenge that his characters show off in this competition film).

Arnaud Desplechin took a unique approach in his first English language film (and I believe, his first film not in French), Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian. Based on true events, the competition film is about a native American Blackfoot Indian suffering from post traumatic stress after WWII who is aided, and studied, by a French anthropologist. Benicio Del Toro plays the title character and Mathieu Almaric (who has played his share of English speaking roles) plays Georges Devereux, the anthropologist and psychoanalyst who works with Jimmy Picard. The story itself deals with many different cultures – in addition to native americans, there is the racist culture of the US in the late 1940s, as well as the military and medical cultures that Jimmy has to face. In addition, Devereux makes his living studying Indian cultures, so Desplechin’s film covers many different angles of this language/culture study: he is actually looking at a different culture, not simply shooting in a new language.

Asghar Farhadi’s The Past concerns a woman (Berenice Bejo, who won the best actress award at Cannes) trying to get a divorce from her Iranian husband in order to get on with her life with a new love. She has a daughter by yet another man and they are all temporarily residing in one house in a Parisian suburb (plus the lover’s young son). While one character is Iranian (as is Farhadi), the story is particularly a French one, with some Arabic culture thrown in a subplot. Yet Farhadi doesn’t make it immediately identifiable as French: he has placed the story in a suburban town, not in Paris which would scream French. But there is a western, or European sensibility which could lock horns with Iranian culture.

Stop the Pounding Heart is Roberto Minervini’s third film and the third film that he made in the U.S. (actually, all in Texas). Since Minervini’s been living in Texas, he has used the state as a palette for his art. Stop the Pounding Heart is what we have come to call a hybrid film: he uses non professional actors to tell stories similar to their lives, but not quite. The only one working in a different language here is Minervini himself, and what he has been doing here and in his other two feature films, is to tell American stories. The real yet meditative quality in Stop the Pounding Heart tells us that the filmmaker has become extremely fluent – in the English language, and in the American culture.

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