It's hard enough making one movie from the belly of a revolution. But two?
After filming anti-Hosni Mubarak democracy protesters in Cairo from early 2011 through the election of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in mid-2012, Noujaim and producer Karim Amer premiered "The Square" at the Sundance Film Festival in January, where it won a top audience prize.
But just weeks later, the Egyptian-American filmmakers were back in Cairo, risking their lives anew to record bloody crackdowns and a military coup. The additional footage soon morphed into a brand-new version of the film.
"We weren't really sure we could continue after we finished the first time," Noujaim says. "But the story kept going, so we did too."
In doing so, the pair has shown both the fluid nature of the Egyptian crisis and modern documentary film's surprising ability to keep up. The new version of "The Square" — playing at L.A.'s Sundance Cinemas — contains about 75% footage not seen in the original. It documents, largely from the revolution's ground zero of Tahrir Square, the coup that overthrew Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood this summer. The movie also finds new characters to give shape to what had been an urgent but more formless verite exercise.
The result is a film broad in scope but up-to-the-minute in timing, a tale equally of failure and resilience as one of the world's most politically complex countries moves fitfully and not always successfully toward democracy. Viewers at the Toronto International Film Festival in September gave the new cut their own audience prize, critics have extolled the film and it's become a front-runner in the Academy Awards' documentary category.
Executives at Netflix agreed with the plaudits — the company two weeks ago made "The Square" its first acquisition of an ambitious documentary slate and aims for a big marketing push when the film becomes available on its service this winter.
To follow the high arc — from the optimism of the early days of Mubarak's overthrow to the messy business of erecting a sustainable democracy — "The Square" focuses on the revolution's citizen activists.
Ahmed Hassan is a young protester with a warm face who makes a sympathetic entry point for audiences, displaying both idealism and dashed dreams.
Perhaps more complicated is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Brotherhoo who believes in the revolution and its ideals and finds his identity riven by recent events.
And there's British Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, star of Hollywood films such as "The Kite Runner," who returned to Cairo from London shortly after the revolution began to pick up where his father, a jailed activist from the '70s, left off.
Western audiences will be struck by how bleak things have turned in the country; the new footage offers an up-close look at a Brotherhood that consolidated power and far overstepped its electoral mandate. Meanwhile, it portrays the army — the other force in Egypt's power-politic dynamic — brutalizing Brotherhood members in a way that will shock those accustomed to the distancing effect of newspaper accounts.
But despite the violence, those involved in the revolution say many of these events give them hope.
"What the coup this summer proved is that we [activists] didn't just overthrow a government once," says Abdalla. "We're able to do it whenever we feel power is being corrupted. There is optimism. What happened in 2011 was not an exception."
Abdalla is talking about the film over lunch in a downtown Los Angeles restaurant with Noujaim and Amer, the trio at the moment a world away from the chaos they chronicle. All three--as well as other crew members and subjects--didn't know each other before the film; they met in Tahrir Square, their very collaboration proving the group's united-we-stand point.
At the beginning, a film was hardly on their minds.