A few days ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its final list of nominations for the 2014 Oscars, with the Egyptian film “The Square” in the Best Documentary category. The nomination is the first of its kind since 1962, when Egyptian actor Omar al-Sharif was nominated for best supporting actor in “Lawrence of Arabia.” This year’s nomination was received with more controversy than joy, with heated debates about why “The Square” has not been screened in Egypt, and a state ban seeming like the most plausible explanation.
The film chronicles the events of the Egyptian revolution until the ouster of former President Mohammad Mursi through a laborer, an actor, and a Muslim Brotherhood member. It was scheduled to be screened in Dec. 2013 as part of the sixth edition of the Panorama of European Film, held annually in Cairo, but was cancelled on the same day. “We have been working very hard to give the film an Egyptian premiere,” said a statement by the Panorama organizers following the cancellation. “Getting the permit to screen the film was very difficult and although we were granted authorization, the producers of the film wanted to take the time to work on a wholly Arabic translated version for the Egyptian audience rather than screening the film in its international version. This was however not completed and shipped on time.”
The film’s director, Egyptian-American Jehane Noujaim, has a different story. According to her, an official request to screen the film in Egypt was submitted to the censorship authority. “We never received a reply,” she said. Noujaim insisted that the screening of the film was never approved: “What you need in order to show the film in a theater and in public spaces for large audiences is an official letter allowing you to do so. They have not issued that letter.” Although at the time the censorship authority did not respond, the fact that the film was not screened was considered a confirmation of reports that it is officially banned. That is how the international press dealt with it as soon as the Academy nominations were out. This was obvious in headlines such as “The Square: an Egyptian Oscar nominee that won’t be shown in Egypt” in The Guardian, “Banned at home and noticed by Oscars” in the New York Times, and “Oscar nod for banned Egyptian film” in the Sydney Morning Herald.
“I don’t know her and I have never seen her before,” was the response Ahmed Awwad, head of the Egyptian Censorship Authority, to Noujaim’s statement about the request to screen her film. “We only received a request from the organizers of the Panorama of European Film so that the film can be screened in that festival, but the copy to be screened did not arrive on time from abroad,” he said. “All the rumors about banning the film are not true. We did not receive any official request by the film producers and if we do, we will look into it and take all the necessary procedures according to the law,” Awwad added.
Noujaim said the censorship authority has recently asked that another screening request be submitted, adding that the film will be welcomed this time. “We were very happy to hear that,” she said. “Screening the film in Egypt is our ultimate goal and we are ready to engage in all sorts of dialogue with the censorship authority and to answer all their questions.”
In the midst of contradicting statements, speculation is rife as to why the documentary, whose rights were acquired by Netflix – where it is currently streaming – would be banned in Egypt in the first place. Journalist Ola al-Shafei said the film’s content “can be seen as unfair” to the Egyptian army in the way it highlights violations committed by the military when in power, while not focusing at all on the role the army later played in fighting the Brotherhood and restoring stability. Shafei said the new dangers to which Egypt is exposed – such as international conspiracies, internal conflict and terrorist attacks – have changed the reality on the ground, and consequently changed the angle from which the army is to be seen, which was not made clear in the film. Journalist Atef Bishara objects to considering the film a means of documenting the Egyptian revolution because, to him, it contains several inaccuracies. “For example, it is mentioned more than once in the film that the army struck a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood while there is no evidence of that,” he wrote. “Instead of investigating, the filmmakers just took information from social networking websites.”
For film critic Tarek al-Shennawi, it is not the content as much as the message of “The Square” that matters. “The film encourages the people to continue their revolution,” he said. “And I think that is why the film was not screened in Egypt.” Activist Aida al-Kashef, who appears in the film, said “The Square” revives memories that could cause more uprisings. “The film reminds Egyptians that the demands for which they started the revolution, like freedom and dignity, haven’t been met, and that the reality we’re living now confirms this,” she said. For singer and activist Ramy Essam, who also appears in the film, it gives Egyptian youths more hope for the future. “The film reminds the people that despite the obstacles the revolution is facing, the younger generations should still believe in their ability to change reality after they conquered their fears,” he said.
Regardless of the reasons for the alleged ban and how official it is, Noujaim sees the Oscar nomination as one of the best means to fight the state’s attempts at severing the link between Egyptians and their memories, and she explicitly accused the army of that. “In Egypt, the military is trying to whitewash history. The film is banned in Egypt. The nomination gives it incredible attention and energy, and allows for the people back home to know that our story will continue to be heard,” she said.
The nomination, and the international fame it has already brought the film, is bound to place the Egyptian authorities in an awkward position if they insist on not screening it she added. “It is putting the film on an international stage, so that the authorities in Egypt are starting to get phone calls and questions about why the rest of the world is allowed to see this film about a crucially important chapter in Egyptian history, and it’s not being shown to the Egyptian people,” she said.
“The Square” won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in Jan. 2013, when it was presented as a work in progress. The updated version won the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September last year.