NEW YORK — On a recent afternoon, Jehane Noujaim apologized for checking her cellphone in the middle of an interview. The director of “The Square,” an immersion into the Egyptian revolution, wanted to make sure her producer, Karim Amer, was going to be able to get back into the country — his country — to see an ailing relative.
Such apprehension was nothing new for Noujaim. “The Square,” nominated Thursday for an Academy Award for best documentary, opened Friday in theaters and via Netflix, but has yet to be screened in Egypt, whose tumultuous recent history is its subject. “The film is in censorship,” she said. “They won’t issue a letter to show it publicly. There’s an attempt to whitewash the last three years.”
That period is given intimate perspective in the film, which tracks the downfall of dictatorial Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 after 18 days of mass protests and military intimidation in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The story continues as Mubarak’s elected successor, Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, also is toppled, amid rising violence and discord between religious and secular factions. The tilts and turns meant that, shortly after winning an audience award for “The Square” at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, Noujaim went back to shooting and re-editing the film.
“Most of these verite films, you make up a story that you think you’re following,” said Noujaim, whose films include “Control Room” and “Startup.com.” “You make a plan and God laughs, right? And that’s the exciting thing about making these films. You don’t know which way a story is going to go. But this story, much more than anything I’ve ever worked on, I had no idea where it was going. We had to have people ready to film at any moment.”
The Harvard-educated filmmaker, 39, was born in Washington but raised in Cairo between the ages of 7 and 17. She grew up a few minutes from Tahrir Square but never imagined that one day she’d be sleeping in it. “There was no place else I wanted to be in the world when things started happening there,” Noujaim said. It was in the square that she met the film’s key figures, each a different piece of the populist puzzle that came together in the story. “You look for people who will take you into worlds that you will never ordinarily see.”
The film’s primary voice belongs to Ahmed Hassan, a streetwise worker in his early 20s with unflagging optimism. He shares the story with the middle-aged Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood whose open-minded nature makes complex and controversial political issues accessible. The actor Khalid Abdalla, star of “The Kite Runner,” also joins the revolution, using his celebrity to draw attention to the cause.
“The film gods were definitely on our side,” said Noujaim, who recruited her team from the square, turning her production office near the site into a makeshift film school and some of the film’s subjects into cameramen. “It was so important for us that this film was really made by Egyptians, that it was the voice of the square.”
That approach gives “The Square” its crackling immediacy, what Noujaim describes as “the feeling of being dropped completely into the revolution.” Brisk sequences cut together from grainy cellphone footage combine passionate discourse with the visceral action of a Jason Bourne thriller. Shots of images on laptops convey the game-changing role of viral media in social change. (During the film’s production, Noujaim was arrested and detained for 40 hours. A post on Twitter helped to get her released.)
But with some 1,600 hours of footage, there were challenges beyond inhaling tear gas, dodging bullets and enduring detentions. “At a certain point, we decided whether we were following the news story or following the character,” said Amer, the producer, in a separate interview. “How do you end something when the story is still going forward?”
That dilemma was resolved by letting the characters drive the film. Noujaim uses emotional storytelling to shape a historical narrative, connecting the events in Tahrir Square to a sense of universal struggle. “It’s not until you are victorious that people actually stand with you,” said Noujaim, who pursued the story through dangerous days after Mubarak fell and the Western media packed up. “That’s when the real struggle began,” she said. “There were no cameras in the square, and the army could do what it wanted to do.”
“ ‘The Square’ was the film she was born to make,” said Mike Lerner, a London-based filmmaker who co-directed “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” a film about the Russian rock activists. “She’s got an astonishing ability to be in the right place at the right time, telling the right story in the right way — in a humanistic and compassionate way.” Lerner, one of “The Square’s” executive producers, said he was impressed by how the act of making the film became part of the revolution it documents, part of a wave of human-rights-themed documentaries that include two other Oscar nominees, “The Act of Killing” and “Dirty Wars.”
The Academy Award nomination is the first ever for an Egyptian film. Noujaim compared the moment to “getting accepted to the World Cup for the first time.” The timing is crucial, as the country voted last week on a new constitution — backed by the military government — with presidential and parliamentary elections expected soon.
“What Ahmed said when we were short-listed was, this means that despite censorship that this film will be unstoppable and our story will never be able to be obliterated or silenced,” Noujaim said. “The government will be in a very uncomfortable place, which is exactly where they need to be put for censoring a film about a hugely important chapter of Egyptian history.”
The story continues, but “The Square” stands as complete as Noujaim could make it.
“There’s going to be so many films and books and retrospectives that will be made about this time,” she said. “There will be essay films that will be made and journalistic reports looking at the politics of what was happening at different levels of government. What we hoped to capture was what it actually felt like to be on the ground, and that you can’t capture again.”
At West End Cinema and streaming on Netflix. Rated R for violence and profanity. In Arabic with subtitles. 104 minutes.