Images courtesy of Nouijam Films
Revolutions are always unfinished business. Anger and hope can get people into the streets, but they can’t build a new society by themselves. Destroying a government is often easier than designing one, and the qualities that make for effective revolutionaries—indignation, idealism, mistrust of compromise—can also tear a revolution apart. What begins with elation and idealism can quickly turn to butchery. Just ask the French.
So it isn’t surprising that the protagonists of the The Square, a new documentary about the Egyptian revolution that opens in New York next week, light up the early minutes of the movie with a romantic intensity and fade into darker moods as their movement fractures and sputters. But while the The Square deals with themes that are familiar to any student of history, it does so in a way that is both jarring and fresh. The ousting of Hosni Mubarak was the first great political upheaval of the era of ubiquitous digital documentation, and director Jehane Noujaim has drawn on an abundance of raw footage—hers and others—to create a revolutionary chronicle of unprecedented immediacy.
The Square follows six Egyptians who share little in common other than revulsion for the Mubarak regime and a yearning for justice. Their story begins in January 2011, shortly before Mubarak’s fall, and ends in August 2013, in the immediate aftermath of the military coup against Mohamed Morsi. Over those two and a half years, they experience more joy, frustration, and terror than most of us will feel in a lifetime. Ocassionally, Noujaim’s subjects are at the vanguard of the revolution, eagerly strategizing and campaigning; at other moments, they are on their back feet, struggling to react to the explosive twists of a struggle for power they themselves set in motion.
For Western audiences, the most familiar of the individuals profiled in The Square will certainly be Khalid Abdalla, a London-based actor who had starring roles in The Kite Runner and United 93. Khalid has a brooding intensity and a tony English accent, so it’s to Noujaim’s credit that she doesn’t let him dominate the movie. The other protagonists of The Square are more representative of the ordinary Egyptians who made the revolution happen. The natural star of the bunch is Ahmed, a working-class inhabitnt of Cairo whose boyish handsomeness and easy charisma make him an almost too-perfect ambassador for Global Youth. Less lovable, but equally fascinating, is Magdy, a middle-aged father of four and member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Magdy’s age and faith make him a natural foil to Ahmed, and the strained friendship between the two is in many ways the most interesting thread of the film. Less prominently featured are Regia, a 30-something human rights lawyer; Aida, a young filmmaker from Cairo; and Ramy, a singer-songwriter who rose to prominence thanks to his performances in Tahrir Square.
The most important character in the movie may be the square itself, which Noujaim captures in immersive close-ups from deep within crowds and in spectacular aerial pans. One of the many unexpected lessons of The Square is that, in spite of relentless observations that the Arab Spring was made possible through Facebook and Twitter, revolutions are still about physical spaces. This is something that activists of The Square know too well. “If you control the square, you have won,” Ahmed says in a glum scene, filmed after the military has cleared Tahrir in the name of public safety. And he has a point—when Noujaim shows footage of hundreds of thousands of robed men praying in unison on the ground where protesters once waived signs and sang songs, it’s easy (if not entirely correct) to sympathize with Ahmed’s conclusion that the Brotherhood has co-opted a broad-based movement for narrower religious purposes.
Most of the time in Noujaim’s film, Tahrir Square crackles with spontaneous energy. It is unusually effective at capturing the kaleidoscopic moods of the protesters as they shout slogans, raise fists, link arms against advancing soldiers, and huddle against bullets and teargas. I can’t think of any other film that allows the viewer to be an inside witness to a revolution in this way, and there are moments during the movie when the tumult in Cairo can seem like a stand-in for all popular revolts. When Noujaim turns her camera on ragtag street denizens erecting barricades against thuggish military police, you feel like you could be seeing Paris in 1871, or Tehran in 2009.
Noujaim was smart to tell the story of the revolution through the lives of individuals, rather than through news clips or impersonal narration. In so doing, she succeeds in infusing familiar events with suspense and wonder. Ahmed in particular is something of a barometer of the movement. He opens the movie grinning and flushed, full of talk about tyranny and justice, but as the film progresses he ages visibly and speaks more abstractedly. In an especially troubling scene, we catch him after he has narrowly escaped a hail of bullets fired into a crowd by military police. His face is ashen and drawn, and for the first time in the film he seems seized with self-doubt. It’s a powerful record of loss of innocence, and a dark reminder of the potential for violence that stalks every step of the march to freedom.
Magdy, too, grows more uneasy with each unexpected turn of the revolution. His loyalty to the Muslim Brotherhood is severely tested over the course of the film, and there are times when he seems in stark denial of the Brotherhood’s activities. In one of the most gripping scenes, he's accosted in public by a handful of secular activists who accuse him of betraying revolutionary ideals and his friends. The hurt on Magdy’s face is real, and it grimly foreshadows the despair that millions of religious Egyptians will feel after the military deposes Morsi and launches a crackdown on the Brotherhood later that year.
The Square isn’t a perfect movie. Filming was supposed to have ended by summer 2013, but revolutions have a way of roaring back into life just when you think they’ve lulled. When public dissatisfaction with Morsi swelled into a full-blown protest movement, the filmmakers returned to Egypt to document the tumult. Although Noujaim obtains some compelling footage of anti-Morsi protests, you can tell the last half hour wasn’t part of the original film. The narrative feels rushed, and some of the characters drop completely out of view.
Additionally, the film's engagement with the private lives of its characters can seem a little cursory. The pace is just too breathless for there to be room to tell us much about the personal histories of its protagonists. Although Ahmed is in many ways the central character of the movie, I left the theater with little sense of his place in Egyptian society and the influences that formed him. And we are told almost nothing about Magdy’s faith, so that we can only guess at what’s transpiring inside his head as he waivers between his secular friends and the Brotherhood. Perhaps most disappointingly, the female characters in The Square play largely supporting roles, and we never get to hear them talk about what they hope the revolution will do for Egypt’s women.
In the end, however, there is only so much one documentary about a historic event like the Egyptian Revolution can hope to accomplish, and Noujaim’s achievement is not a minor one. If The Square fails to satisfy, it is only because the revolution itself is unsatisfying. It will be a long time before Khalil, Ahmed, and Magdy can all link arms in Tahrir Square and look back happily on what they have created.
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