When I met director Jehanne Noujaim (Startup.com, Control Room) and producer Karim Amer in London, they’d been up all night working on a rough cut of a documentary film about the Egyptian revolution. Their editor had passed out in one of State‘s conference rooms.
They showed me the opening 10 minutes of the film, and I was blown away. They had footage from the very first days — always right in the middle of the action; always stunningly shot; often personal; always kinetic. It showed an insider’s view, where previously I’d only seen the aerial shots taken by news crews high up on their balconies. They focussed on 5 main characters, following them through periods of violent protest, defiance, beatings, defeat, resilience, new beginnings, reasonable doubt and tentative hope. It was an extraordinary historical account from multiple perspectives, and I knew I had to get involved.
A month later I moved to Cairo and gave them a call. I watched the film through a few times, and thought about how to best represent it on a one-sheet. I wanted to find a truly iconic image of the revolution, and to make it synonymous with the film. Tahrir Square from above has been seen a million times. Those incredible photos of protestors from the early days with all the fire — brilliant, but using them would be a bit opportunistic.
After a while I realised that the message of the film must simply be the message of the uprising. One of the most common chants, even two [edit – eight] years on, is the Arabic الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام, which can be translated a bunch of ways, but I went with The People Demand The Downfall of the Regime. This is the iconic representation I was looking for.
This phrase, this mantra was the message of the film; it was the message of the revolution. One of Egypt’s fantastic graffiti artists Ammar Abu Bakr donated some of his work which I gratefully adopted for the final piece. You can see more of his work in the film itself, where I overlaid chapter markers to separate distinct movements in the story of the revolution.
Early prototypes featured a ‘fractured’ view of Tahrir, an emphasis on who the ‘People’ were, and the idea that the film provided a glimpse into the meaning behind the revolution.
The artwork was flexible enough to be used across multiple platforms.
Although it was to be released primarily on Netflix, we prepared a presskit to go out with special screenings in LA to attract attention of the Academy. Some of the stills needed quite heavy photoshop work to get them press-ready, and it was nice to work in print design again. The team like pushing decisions late into deadline territory, so I started a collaborative central doc which they could tinker with up until I locked it down and transferred to InDesign.
Creating graphics for in-film was new to me. I worked on the opening titles, chapter breaks and end credits. They’re not Spider-verse quality, but maybe next time.
The supporting website was created on Assemble, so that the far-flung team could all edit to their heart’s content. It didn’t stay pretty for long.
The film was to be released on Netflix, one of their first ever ‘Originals’, so I worked with their team to really push the promo campaign of billboards and posters.
We did a viral graffiti stencil campaign that I’m not sure really went anywhere, but the merch looked sick.
If you have a chance to see it, do. An unfinished cut of the film premiered at Sundance and won the Audience Award; the final version premiered at Toronto Film Fest and won the People’s Choice Award.
Jason Gorber at Twitch said this:
The Square is easily one of the most complex, most nuanced, and frankly most important documentaries made about the ongoing political developments in Egypt. Heck, I’ll go further, it’s one of the finer historical documentaries I think that’s ever been made, period… This is a film that will move you, will challenge you, and will make you think in entirely new ways. The Square is, quite simply, a modern masterpiece.
It was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary alongside The Act of Killing and Dirty Wars, but lost out to a film about American backing-singers. You can’t please everyone.
It did win a few Emmys tho.