Directed by: Jehane Noujaim
Premise: A documentary that follows several participants in the Egyptian demonstrations that brought down the rule of Hosni Mubarak and who later campaigned for different visions of Egypt’s future.
What Works: The year 2013 saw the release of many great documentaries focused on social justice issues such God Loves Uganda, The Act of Killing, and We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. Of these, The Square stands out because of the excellence of its filmmaking but also because of its complex storytelling. Beginning with the protests against the government of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, the film recaps the imagery of Egyptians crowded into Tahrir Square that were widely circulated at that time. But instead of ending with Mubarak’s decision to step down, the filmmakers instead begin there and then track the struggle of the democratic movement to maintain its momentum. As enunciated by several of the people tracked in The Square, Egypt requires a fundamental change, including a restructuring of the government and a new constitution. Conflict arises between the various visions for Egypt’s future, namely those who want a secular government and groups that want to make the country an Islamic republic, and the filmmakers document the gradual breakdown of a united front with several factions jockeying for position. This is shown through the tales of several people: Ahmed Hassan, a young revolutionary who wants a modern secular state, Khalid Abdalla, an internationally known Egyptian actor who takes on the role of correspondent and advocate of the revolution, Egyptian folk singer Ramy Essam who provides the soundtrack for the crowds of demonstrators, and Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. No one person emerges as the focus of the film and that works for the documentary. This is a portrayal of a community of people with various interests, priorities, and ideas and the filmmakers document the conflict of those ideas in Tahrir Square. But among the character studies, the footage of Ashour is some of the most fascinating. Although the Muslim Brotherhood is cast in a negative light, Ashour’s portrayal is nuanced and his own ambitions, hopes, and frustrations provide some gradation to the escalating conflict. As the situation deteriorates, Egypt is pushed to the threshold of civil war. The footage of Egyptian military forces opening fire on civilians or running them over with armored vehicles are a harrowing challenge to the audience (partly because many of these weapons were American made and/or purchased with American financial support). Stories and images of rebellion are often romanticized in dramatic films. The Square captures the hope for a better future but tempers it with the barbarity of reality. That uncertainty gives the film its lasting impact and makes it not only a document of a particular place and time but also a depiction of a broader struggle for freedom and democracy.
What Doesn’t: Like other documentaries about an evolving political situation such as No End in Sight and Fahrenheit 9/11, The Square documents a particular moment in time. The future relevance of this documentary is dependent upon on what happens in Egypt’s future. In years to come, viewers may see the film as the defining document of a social movement or it may be regarded as an obsolete or incomplete caricature of a longer and more complicated period. As it is, the movie has extraordinary footage and revealing moments and those are enough to make for a good and important film.
Bottom Line: The Square is an extraordinary piece of documentary filmmaking and in time it may be a defining document of his period of time both for Egypt and for the world. What the filmmakers have created is a nuanced and unsparing look at democracy as a street fight that is both intellectually and emotionally stirring.
Episode: #475 (January 26, 2014)