UPDATED: Two politically-charged Oscar-nominated documentaries, Jehane Noujaim‘s The Square and Joshua Oppenheimer‘s The Act of Killing, have taken their awards push to the international stage as balloting closes today, both attempting to effect real world change by reaching the very audience they depict onscreen. Noujaim’s The Square tracks the ongoing Egyptian Revolution of 2011 through 2013 through the eyes of four Egyptians at ground zero and was released theatrically and on Netflix in October. The Sundance Audience Award-winner was blocked from release in Egypt and had been pirated so much internationally that the filmmakers opted to release an Arabic-language stream via Distrify earlier this month. Yesterday Noujaim & Co. went one step further, making The Square available in Egypt for free on YouTube, circumventing censors whose refusal to rule on the pic’s admissibility had prevented a proper release in the country.
“This is a film that was born in Tahrir Square, by 40 Egyptian filmmakers who all met in the square and quickly saw the dark story that was forming once the international news cameras left. We knew that we had to make sure our story would be told to the world by us,” said Noujaim via email.
“It was crucial to release the film before the Oscars,” she continued. “It is the first nomination for a film from Egypt, and is a voice for freedom and democracy when there have been almost 30,000 people arrested since July, and among them many journalists and activists. The police brutality and killings in Egypt reported by Amnesty in the last 6 months have been unprecedented. In a time when the power structure is trying to white wash history and squares around the world are rising up with people claiming their rights it is crucial to to show the many who continue to fight for basic freedoms that their voices will be heard.”
The filmmakers will continue to try to pass The Square through Egypt’s censors so the the film can be legally released in the country. “It was important for us to continue this effort because this will be a major step in the direction toward support of freedom of speech in Egypt, because it will be the first time the government allows a piece of work to exist whether or not they agree or disagree with what it says,” said Noujaim.
Drafthouse Films’ The Act of Killing similarly encountered obstacles in reaching its subject audience – the people of Indonesia, whose government has historically ignored the acts of death squads that murdered an estimated 1M people in the nation’s politically-motivated genocide of 1965-66. Director Oppenheimer worked for eight years with the families of victims and the perpetrators of the killings which were carried out decades ago but have never been publicly acknowledged by the current regime. Despite the fact that the film could not openly screen in Indonesia, the film’s Berlin, BAFTA, and numerous critics awards propelled the ongoing issue of impunity for these war crimes into the global conversation. The Act of Killing has been seen in thousands of underground screenings in the country and in September, Drafthouse teamed with VICE and VHX to offer a free download geotargeted for Indonesian users; offered on BitTorrent in December, the film was downloaded over 3.5 million times. After the film was nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, the Jakarta Globe addressed the genocide on its January cover story in which a spokesman for the Indonesian president acknowledged “the issues of our bleak past.”
Last week Oppenheimer and Co. brought The Act of Killing to Capitol Hill with a Library of Congress screening for senators, members of congress, and staffers. Upon viewing the film, host Senator Tom Udall(D-NM), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told US News he’s considering the introduction of a Senate resolution to bring attention to the issue: “The United States government should be totally transparent on what it did and what it knew at the time, and they should be disclosing what happened here.”
According to Oppenheimer, a copy of the film has been sent to President Obama, who grew up partly in Indonesia, as well as Hillary Clinton. “The Awards season has, above all, been about deepening the debate, both inside Indonesia and beyond,” the director told Deadline via email. “We still hope that the Indonesian government will finally acknowledge the 1965 genocide — and the present-day regime of fear built upon it — as a moral catastrophe. And we hope that the renewed attention to the film will encourage ordinary Indonesians to demand that their leaders be held accountable for their crimes – be they genocide, corruption, or the use of thugs to do their dirty work. And we hope that it will inspire all Indonesians to work together for truth, justice, and reconciliation.”