The Square zooms into the large waves of demonstrations and counterattacks in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square that first erupted in the 2011 Arab Spring. Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim vividly finds and follows individual participants who are still making history happen.
Several documentaries have captured the first wave of protests—Stefano Savona’s Tahrir: Liberation Square in 2011 and last year in Mai Iskander’s Words of Witness. But Noujaim, in returning to her family’s home 10 minutes from the square and with no preproduction planning, encountered more diversity in protestors (including producer Karim Amer), and stayed with them, month by month, as the seasons passed. The hot-off-the-presses feel continues into summer 2013’s counterrevolution against “the new pharaoh” Mahamed Morsi. This current version was updated from the Audience Award-winning cut shown at this year’s Sundance Festival that ended with Morsi’s election as president in June 2012.
Beyond the events in the streets on the TV news (and those who saw it as a Facebook revolution), Noujaim engrossingly captures a portrait of a society in the throes of consciousness-raising, where people grew up afraid to talk politics or to people of different faiths and classes. Arguments in the square continue into living rooms, when strategic organizing meetings hosted by Pierre Seyoufr, a Coptic Christian, reveal more sides than the earlier films. Most significantly, the activists begin to see each other as individuals, rather than labels, and care for each other, so the audience does too.
While human rights lawyer Ragia Omran is the director’s childhood friend (and helped to get her out of jail), the others she films were new to her. Ahmed Hassan, a young, genial working-class guy, is the closest to a narrator, talking, somewhat dreamily, to the camera in response to her (unheard) questions on why he “went to the streets.” He even gets swept up in delivering a speech to a crowd and occasionally has to talk through tear gas protection. By the end, he’s discouraged and fumes against 2011’s “traitors”: “It’s a war in the square, not a revolution.” As he and more of his cohorts get conscripted into the army, will they change the institution or will the institution wear them down as it has done to so many others over generations? At the New York Film Festival press conference, the director mused that Ahmed in the military leading a revolution within would make a fascinating documentary.
More familiar to American audiences will be British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, the star of The Kite Runner (2007), who returns to his homeland to take up the mantle of his exiled father’s protests against the Mubarak regime. Via Skype, his father in England skeptically advises Khalid, based on his experience of many arrests, and is sadly prophetic about the military’s tactics against the protestors.
Most unusually, and what makes this documentary stand apart, is the participation of Muslim Brotherhood youth organizer Magdy Ashour, a bearded, older family man. Like Khalid’s father, he bears scars from time spent in Mubarak’s jails. Near the end, he brings the filmmaker into his home to meet his family, including two teens, who he’s unsure how to advise as his brethren legislate against the democratic goals of the diverse friends he made in the square, and then the Muslim Brotherhood is, in turn, again repressed.
One visual demarcation of the political roller coaster, helpful since not all the protest signs are translated, is the images of graffiti artist Abo Bakr on streets near the square. He graphically communicates the moods from rallying determination to euphoria to meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss when Morsi interprets his 51 percent victory as a mandate for undemocratic measures. Other artists followed are filmmaker Aida El Kashef, who helped lead the citizen journalism efforts of screening footage of the protests on make-shift outdoor screens, and singer-songwriter Ramy Essam, coming from a small town to galvanize the crowds who quickly take up his melodic calls for peaceful change.
I find it a bit disconcerting that the director calls these real people “characters” in order to hone in on them in her editing process, inspired, she says, by her mentor D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, her co-director on 2001’s Start-up.com. But she has developed a sure hand for discerning documentaries in the fraught Middle East, after Control Room about Al Jazeera and her more similarly cinema verité Rafea: Solar Mama, filmed in Jordan last year, to make this much more than just an explanatory documentation of a socio-political phenomenon. For all the lesson of unity the “characters” learn, the irony is bitterly clear that, as if one is watching in real time the French Revolution explode and devolve into Napoleonic power, passion in the streets can lead to another dictatorship rather than the messiness of democracy.