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"The Square" is a documentary that chronicles Egypt's three years of unrest and revolution. It is the first Egyptian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. It's been released in more than 40 countries, but most Egyptian audiences have yet to see it because that country is cracking down on independent voices. Merrit Kennedy looks at the filmmaker's struggle to show the film.

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MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: On a cool Cairo evening, "The Square's" cast and crew put on an informal screening of the film for their friends. Many of them are in the documentary; all of them experienced some part of the events in the now-iconic Tahrir Square.

The action takes place over two and a half years and the small audience in this office knows well how the story unfolds. First, the protests that led to the ouster of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, then came the tumultuous interim period under a military council, followed by the election of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Finally, the film shows Morsi's overthrow by the military last summer after huge protests against his rule.

These viewers are among the few in Egypt who have seen the film because it hasn't received government approval to be shown in theatres here.

Ahmed Awaad is Egypt's Head of Censorship, in charge of vetting films applying for general release.

AHMED AWAAD: Nobody asked for permission or a license for the film till now.

KENNEDY: But members of the cast and crew, including producer Karim Amer, say they have applied and they've become embroiled in a months-long bureaucratic nightmare.

KARIM AMER: The issue has become much larger than we ever expected.

KENNEDY: Amer says they've encountered a series of roadblocks and red tape that would make it difficult for any new, independent filmmaker in Egypt. These rules, he says, aren't designed to encourage the craft.

AMER: But to kind of keep it enclosed to a very small network of people that are running the film industry.

KENNEDY: Khalid Abdalla is an Egyptian-British actor and activist and one of the main characters in the film. He sees the problem with the censorship board as a political issue framed as a bureaucratic one.

KHALID ABDALLA: I mean are you trying to tell me that if this film was a film that was celebrating how great the current political establishment is, and it had been nominated for an Oscar, that we would be waiting?

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KENNEDY: The documentary shows harrowing footage of military and police violence against protestors. At the screening, during one scene of intense violence, a few in the audience quietly wept.

Jehane Noujaim, the director, points out that these are scenes that many Egyptians have already seen. But...

JEHANE NOUJAIM: What the film does is it humanizes the struggle of Egyptians and really shows what the human story was behind those scenes.

KENNEDY: "The Square" follows the relationship between two left-wing activists and a Muslim Brotherhood supporter, who met in Tahrir Square in early 2011, during the protests that led to the fall of then-President Mubarak.

NOUJAIM: We followed ordinary, regular people living through the last few years, and they were conflicted and they were emotional about what was going on. And I think for people in Egypt to see that, and to also remember what we were originally fighting for, is really important in this time.

KENNEDY: A time when leftists and Islamists alike are being smeared in the local press and by the government. Authorities have declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and critics of the government are routinely viewed as traitors.

Although "The Square" has received numerous accolades, some critics say it paints too rosy a picture, given the current situation. But actor Khalid Abdalla says it simply allows for some perspective.

ABDALLA: When we talk about now, now is definitely a dark moment for people. And the film is not just giving them hope. It's also, if you like, allowing this kind of bird's eye view as well of the cycle of change. And reminding people: Oh, we've been here before and we got through it before.

KENNEDY: And producer Karim Amer says the Oscar nomination will only increase interest in the film among Egyptians. Pirated copies of the documentary are spreading fast throughout the country.

AMER: The stage that the academy provides in bringing global attention to stories is really such a powerful stage. And being the first Egyptian film to be nominated, it - you know, it completely elevates the story into a space that makes it very difficult for any groups that are trying to stop it and to stop it in the Middle East.

KENNEDY: For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Cairo.

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