The Square

I'm normally not a fan of documentaries like The Square, which attempt to explain complex political situations through the eyes of a few supposedly representative individuals. The result is often wildly oversimplified, and the audience leaves with the false impression that they've attained some meaningful insight. But the talented Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim (2001’s, 2004’s Control Room) has fashioned something infinitely more impressive than the typical reductive snapshot.  The Square documents the recent political turmoil in Egypt, using footage from local camera crews as well as personal video shot by the documentary's subjects themselves. The films begins with images from the Arab Spring protests of 2011, when an amalgamation of nonviolent protestors from many socioeconomic and religious backgrounds occupied Cairo's Tahrir Square and demanded the overthrow of then-President Hosni Mubarak. This event launched an ongoing struggle in Egypt, but the film does not spend much time dwelling on this single event. Instead this opening segment introduces us to the movie’s three main characters, each with their own different political perspective but all united in a desire to bring freedom to their country. Ahmed Hassan is young, passionate activist devoted to convincing his fellow Egyptians to join the struggle in one-on-one interactions and speeches he makes to small groups in the street. Khalid Abdalla is British-Egyptian actor who starred in The Kite Runner and uses his celebrity and elegant English speaking voice to articulate ideas to the larger Western world. Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who wants Mubarak gone, but understands why the others in the movement continue to protest after the Brotherhood takes over. As the events of the protests unfold, Nouajim follows these three men as well as dozens of other characters, imparting to the viewer a broad understanding of the array of people who make up a revolution: true believers, opportunists, irrational fanatics, potential leaders, and casual bandwagon-riders. We experience the difficulty of keeping a political movement both idealistically pure and practically effective, and we gain a rich sense of how long and protracted uprisings really are. For just as the American Revolution did not end with the famous shot heard ‘round the world, the Egyptian Revolution only begins with the overthrow of Mubarak.

It's difficult for any film to present a complete portrait of a society undergoing radical change, and perhaps it's an impossible task for one as short as this, with a running time of only 108 minutes. But while The Square fails to provide much information beyond what we've seen in the news over the last three years, it achieves something much more important. Nouajim's film fosters a complete day-to-day, year-to-year understanding of exactly what a revolution consists of. Most documentaries about political movements either tell their story by looking back on past events or convey only individual accounts with moment-to-moment immediacy. The first type of film often presents the end result of a political struggle as a foregone conclusion, making it difficult to tangibly grasp the complex difficulties the revolutionaries confront. The second kind gives us a more personal, emotional understanding, but often lacks the diverse perspectives necessary for the audience to come away with a complete sense of everything at issue. Noujaim deftly threads this needle, giving us the palpable sense of what the revolution means to the characters we’ve gotten to know, but also constantly pulling us back to the distant vantage point from which we, as non-Egyptians, experience these events. More than any recent political film I’ve seen, The Square reveals the nature of political revolutions: rather than single incidents that cause a seismic change, they're small cyclical progressions, which may slowly add up to a dramatic metamorphosis but could just as easily amount to nothing, with the society right back to where it was before. 

Directed by Jehane Noujaim
Produced by Karim Amer

With: Khalid Abdalla, Dina Abdullah, Dina Amer, Magdy Ashour, Sherif Boray, Aida Elkashef, Ramy Essam, and Ahmed Hassan

Cinematography: Jehane Noujaim, Muhammad Hamdy, Ahmed Hassan, and Cressida Trew
Editing: Christopher de la Torre, Mohammed el Manasterly, Karim Fanous, Pierre Haberer, Pedro Kos, Stefan Ronowicz, Shazeya Serag, and Angie Wegdan
Music: Jonas Colstrup and H. Scott Salinas

Runtime: 95 min
Release Date: 10 January 2014