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Watching ‘The Square’ in Cairo

The film is Egypt’s first-ever Oscar nomination. But good luck trying to see it if you’re actually in the country.

CAIRO, Egypt — The projector’s beam pierces the air of a smoke-filled Cairo apartment. As the gathered crowd settle into their chairs, the sound of revolution fills the room. This is “The Square,” the film which, despite winning Egypt’s first ever Oscar nomination, has not reached Egyptian cinemas.

Monday night was its first public screening in the city where the film’s events took place.

The documentary takes its name fromTahrir Square, the focal point of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. Directed by American-Egyptian filmmaker Jehane Noujaim on a shoestring budget with hand-held cameras, “The Square” uses original footage to document the lives of a group of activists through the heady days of the revolution to the military coup which deposed Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

The film, like the uprising it depicts, has caught the attention of audiences around the world, winning the People’s Choice Documentary Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, and the Audience Award at Sundance 2013. But it has yet to gain official permission to be screened in Egypt.

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“The Square” had been due to premiere at an international film festival in Cairo last month, but was pulled at the last minute. The filmmakers said they had not received official approval for its final cut.

Egyptian newspapers have greeted the film’s Oscar nomination with delight, and many have criticised its inaccessibility to the public. While the film’s viewing status rests in limbo, Egyptians are finding other ways to watch it in private. Some are using VPN internet connections to stream it online. Others are seeking out guerilla viewing parties, like the one on Monday night, where they can watch with friends.

Reasons behind the delay in official approval remain ambiguous, but what’s clear is that “The Square” has come out at a time of heightened political tension between Egypt’s military-backed authorities on the one side, and separately, secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood on the other.

The film’s protagonists are fiercely critical of Egypt’s widely popular army. Thus, some argue that it has not passed the censors on account of its provocative subject matter. But insiders say it has also fallen foul of the country’s sclerotic bureaucratic procedures, where the process of applying for viewing permits remains ridden with pitfalls.

On Wednesday, Egypt’s chief censor, Ahmed Awaad told local press that the responsibility for the delay in fact lay with those handling the application process on the film’s behalf. Arguing that correct procedures had not been adhered to, he described rumours of its banning as “propaganda for the film”.

The team behind the film are adamant that it deserves to be brought to a wider audience.

“This is a deeply important moment for Egyptian cinema, and it’s difficult to understand why the Egyptian people have not been allowed to be a part of it,” says Cressida Trew, an associate producer and camerawoman for the film.

For Trew, “The Square” is more than just a record of events. She says it’s a contribution to ongoing political debates which are dividing the country.

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“The film has a very strong perspective on the wider narrative [regarding the revolution and its legacy],” she says. “Discussions about who did what and when, what’s been forgotten and why… these are thoughts that can change how people behave in the future. Even if they reject everything in the film, it should be part of the debate.”

Specifically, as well as intense footage from the street battles that have punctuated the lives of many Egyptian activists since January 2011, “The Square” includes heart-wrenching footage of an event which has largely faded from international memory.

On Oct. 9 2011, the military attacked a group of predominantly Coptic Christian demonstrators, killing 28. The film includes shaky footage of armoured vehicles mowing down protesters outside the Cairo headquarters of Egypt’s state television network.

The film has been the subject of much political commentary in the western press. Criticism ranges from questions over its negative portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood to its failure to adequately address the bloodshed that followed Morsi’s ouster.

But according to Trew, the debate about the film should take place among Egyptians themselves, rather than in the op-ed pages and comments sections of the international media.

“The film is attempting to tell a part of the story which the Egyptian people made, and this means that the Egyptian people should be able to see it, to love it, to hate it, to respond to it,” she says. “It’s a part of Egyptian history and it needs to be owned or rejected here.”