“You’re entering a space where the dust hasn’t settled in a time when certain groups are trying to rewrite history”
Karim Amer, producer of the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Square,” says the film is sparking controversy in his home country, where former president Mohamed Morsi is on trial for a series of alleged crimes against the nation.
“Some people are saying we’re secret members of the (Muslim) Brotherhood, army loyalists – I don’t know how that’s possible – that we’re CIA,” said Amer. “But ordinary people are very excited, and the tweets and messages are fantastic.”
The film about the Egyptian revolution has not been released in Egypt, and as a result is being pirated from Netflix to the tune of more than a million streams.
TheWrap spoke with Amer, who is in Los Angeles, about Egypt’s first Oscar nomination, which has become both a cultural phenomenon and a lightning rod.
TheWrap: What is the state of affairs in Egypt at the moment?
Amer: The whole system in Egypt, the judicial system, is completely messed up. I have a friend who was arrested for a tweet. He said that the judiciary calling NGOs part of an international conspiracy was ridiculous. Because of that he was charged with “insulting the judiciary.” In Egypt when you’re on trial you’re in a cage before the verdict, so it basically looks like you’re guilty.
Can you go back to Egypt since having made “The Square”?
I feel I can go back. But it’s a chance, 50-50, you don’t know. This is my first film. I”ve worked on productions before but never something with this scope from beginning to end. I didn’t see it as a steady way to go forward. Went into more serious work, as my father would say.
Did you study film in school?
I went to NYU where I studied economics and political science and minored in entertainment. I come from a conservative family – I think they’ve given up trying to figure out what I’m going to do.
Are they coming for the Academy Awards?
I hope so. We’re trying to get more tickets.
What about the cast of the film?
We’re trying to get them out here. But there’s some difficulty with paperwork on the Egyptian side. The American embassy has been very helpful.
Explain to us what is happening in Egypt right now, from your point of view.
Right now there’s an attempt to whitewash history, to paint a picture that what happened is the (Muslim) Brotherhood’s fault. I don’t think it’s gonna work. The country once again is not in an inclusive process. They fight against any kind of dissent, and that just breeds more dissent.
What happened in Egypt in that square is young Egyptians tried to break free of the narrative that enslaved them for decades. People had no ability to have sense of authorship for the future. They didn’t have the empowerment to make decisions that affect their lives.
That is the sense of liberation they’re continuing to fight for. Because of the vacuum of a political process, the story afterward becomes we don’t want the old guard, we want people who are not corrupt. The Brotherhood jumped on that, and said religion is the solution, is not corrupted. That didn’t work.
What’s happening now is people have run back to another story – that Egypt needs a strong, central leader in land of the Pharaohs.
This needs to fail. If it happens enough, Egyptians will rid themselves of two stories: that the strong man will make everything happen, and that religion can solve everything.
This needs to fail?
Just like “Islam is the solution” needed to fail. It’s the only way a society can get to a place where everyone realizes we need everybody or we all sink. That unfortunately, in Arabic – you have to burn your fingers a bit, to respect certain things. That’s what’s happening.
The only issue is the economy really suffering. People on the bottom, in the film, are paying the price. That’s the real clock we’re going against. That could lead to major collapse. That’s why it’s a tense situation.
Tell us about the film. It’s become a phenomenon in Egypt?
It’s been pirated by over 1 million people online. There are guides online on how to hack Netflix in Egypt. It’s created controversy in Egypt. Some people are saying we’re secret members of the Brotherhood, army loyalists – I don’t know how that’s possible – that we’re CIA. But ordinary people are very excited, and the tweets and messages are fantastic.
What created controversy was the Oscar (nomination). That’s the first film in Egyptian history to be nominated. It shows the how powerful the stage in Hollywood is. It can make such an impact.
It’s critical because the film is very much representative of the main issue – who gets to write history? That is still being decided. You’re entering a space where the dust hasn’t settled in a time when certain groups are trying to rewrite history.
The beauty of what happened in that square became a story the whole world started watching. All of a sudden the power of witness of the world leveled the playing field. It was no longer just an Egyptian protester versus the dictator, it was supported by world attention. That’s the power we witnessed and saw. We have to remind people – that’s the power of audience.