by Matt Levine
History unfurls in a magnitude of moments, passing by irrepressibly even as the most pivotal events take on a slow-motion infinitude in our memories. Since films have a natural, potent affinity for bearing witness to history in the making, a number of documentaries since cinema’s infancy have petrified our global history onto celluloid, cataloguing our political past: there were Dziga Vertov’s “Kino-eye” documentaries in the 1920s, British and American postwar newsreels in the late 1940s, visual essays by Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker during and after the Vietnam War, and more recent Iranian social commentaries by Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, among others. Now, The Square joins the ranks of overwhelming films which seem to visualize world-changing events at their very nascency. Although it remains admirably ambivalent about the ability for political rebellion to improve the lives of its human agents, the film may also remind you that “history” perpetually writes itself, at every moment, throughout the world, catalyzed by ordinary people adopting an extraordinary cause.
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Producer: Karim Amer
Cinematographers: Muhammad Hamdy, Ahmed Hassan, Jehane Noujaim, Cressida Trew
Editors: Christopher de la Torre, Mohammed el Manasterly, Karim Fanous, Pierre Haberer, Pedro Kos, Stefan Ronowicz, Shazeya Serag, Angie Wegdan
Music: Jonas Colstrup, H. Scott Salinas
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Dina Abdullah, Dina Amer, Magdy Ashour, Aida Elkashef, Ramy Essam, Ahmed Hassan, Bothania Kamel, Khaled Nagy, Ragia Omran, Salma Saied, Ahmed Saleh, Pierre Seyoufr
US Home Viewing Release: January 17, 2014
US Distributors: Participant Media, City Drive Entertainment Group, Netflix
The Square begins in January 2011, when a diverse array of protesters in cities throughout Egypt demanded the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak through demonstrations, marches, riots, labor strikes, and other acts of civil disobedience. Mubarak and his secret police had severely impinged upon the rights of Egyptian citizens, instilling an “emergency law” since his rise to power in 1981 which suspended the constitution, prohibited public demonstrations, heavily censored news and media industries, and extended vast powers to the military, enabling them to detain and persecute anti-government proponents with no trial whatsoever.
In Cairo, popular dissent was centralized in Tahrir Square, a beautiful public promenade which quickly became overrun with freedom fighters, activists, artists, musicians, and public figures from all walks of life striving to achieve peaceful rebellion. At least initially, Tahrir Square drew male and female dissenters, Christian and Muslim, young and old; their political idealism was matched only by their refusal to vacate the Square until their demands—the removal of Mubarak’s regime, the end of emergency law, and a more democratic participation in their country’s political makeup—were achieved. Their goals seemed to be met in February 2011, when Mubarak stepped down and ceded power to a military junta which would rule for six months, at which point democratic elections would be held.
The galvanizing hope that defines the first sequence in the film peaks early, lulling us into what seems to be an overly tidy documentary lauding the Arab Spring uprisings and their pro-democratic fervor. In a clever ruse, though, The Square forces us to share in the unbridled optimism spreading among occupiers in the Square, only to dash our hopes almost immediately thereafter: it turns out the players have changed, but the song remains the same. Mubarak’s repressive regime is replaced by a military oligarchy that brutally assaults the protestors, pelting them with live bullets and nerve gas or steamrolling them with armored tanks while vilifying them through the propagandistic media. Tahrir Square soon becomes a locus for the Muslim Brotherhood, the faction formerly persecuted by Mubarak’s secret police, yet who now collaborate with the military cabal in order to ensure state support in the upcoming elections. And indeed, when the votes are tallied in June 2012, it’s Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi who becomes fifth president of Egypt—and who enrages the dedicated protesters we saw at the beginning of the film by labeling himself their “new pharaoh” and granting himself almost unparalleled autocracy, compelling the freedom-fighters to reclaim Tahrir Square less than two years after their initial occupation.
All of these tumultuous events are observed seemingly as they happen, utilizing a gargantuan amount of footage culled not only by the director, Jehane Noujaim, and her team of cinematographers, but also by the army of protestors wielding cell phones and videocameras. Like the volatile footage of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1968), the you-are-there camerawork throws us unnervingly into the eye of a historical hurricane. We witness firsthand the police brutality perpetrated against protesters, as they are tased, pelted with tear gas, mercilessly beaten, and annihilated by megaton tanks. The violence is horrifying; the maimed corpses we see were entirely absent from CNN reporting (though Morsi’s veiled threats were all too apparent). At times it’s mystifying how Noujaim and her crew were able to achieve this footage at all, especially when government officials, speaking directly to the camera, vilify protesters and applaud the valiant military, who (they say) are merely protecting a besieged, almighty empire. It’s reminiscent of The Act of Killing: tyrants who have become so inured to their own impunity that they celebrate their despotism.
Yet The Square is not simply an amalgamation of unrelated vérité footage. This would be compelling and vital by itself, but The Square also recognizes the human sacrifices that propel political rebellion. The documentary is centered around three individuals: Ahmed, a young activist who orates with remarkable passion and intelligence (he beseeches his countrymen to awaken Egypt’s conscience); Khalid, a famous actor who lionized the revolution in the international media (and was sometimes chastised for it); and Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is also dear friends with his secular compatriots, though the underhanded maneuverings of the Brotherhood threaten to alienate him from them. Other compelling individuals reappear frequently: bespectacled Aida, who strives to achieve a secular democracy; shy, handsome Ramy, a protest singer who is jailed and tortured by the police after the initial demonstrations in Tahrir Square. They’re all charismatic people—dedicated, passionate, charming, eloquent—and their often tense negotiation of the revolution’s troubled waters provide The Square with its churning emotional intensity. There is little gratification in their crusade, pitched as it is against a Goliath state that responds to each of their triumphs which increasing brutality. Yet there is also unwavering hope (the legitimate kind, as opposed to the campaign-catchphrase kind) and a clear-eyed, ardent patriotism that could overwhelm even the most jaded cynic. It doesn’t seem hyperbolic to claim that The Square could restore your faith in political activism (which is appropriate, since the film is at least partially a rallying cry to similarly oppressed populations).
The primary tool of this pacifistic army of rebels—aside from their dedication and their unity (endangered though it is by the government)—is digital technology. Like Panahi’s This Is Not a Film (shot partially with an iPhone and smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive), The Square champions new media as an indispensable grassroots tool. Shocking cell-phone videos of torture, murder, and brutality attest to the urgency of the Egyptian people’s victimization; the state media may be a tool for Morsi’s regime, but YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo and the like belong to the people. Nowhere is this clearer than the scene in which thousands of protestors in Tahrir Square watch a documentary edited by Khalid (much of which is repeated in The Square itself), as this insurgent community finds greater solidarity in seeing their plight onscreen: shot on digital cameras, edited with Final Cut Pro, and projected digitally in front of a massive audience, both Khalid’s documentary and The Square are testaments to the inclusive power (and ready accessibility) of digital media. As Khalid claims at one point, the power of their protest movement lies primarily in their stories and their images—which might as well serve as The Square’s motto.
The Square also embraces art more generally as a cathartic tool for grappling with political and personal trauma—for trying to understand the human experience in all of its abject complexity. In addition to Khalid’s film, there is Ramy’s music (impassioned protest songs that lambaste the murderous military while they’re in conspicuous earshot) and the dazzling murals by Abo Bakr that appear occasionally in vivid, haunting slivers onscreen. Whether cinema, music, or street art, all of these works attempt to respond to unthinkable violence with passion, beauty, and hope, positing the creation of art as a rebellious action in itself.
At its most cursory level, The Square could be described as a crash course in recent Egyptian history, providing a context and visual elaboration of the news stories that told us of political unrest in Cairo from 2011-13. This is a valuable achievement, but describing The Square as a current-affairs photo-essay is like calling Battleship Potemkin a Lenin-loving Soviet travelogue—it just doesn’t do it justice. The Square’s director, Jehane Noujaim, has previously addressed the web-entrepreneur phenomenon with Startup.com (2001) and the intricacies of political representation in the media with Control Room (2004), two great documentaries that willfully avoid easy answers and balance social analysis and human empathy with remarkable agility. Her achievement with The Square is undeniably impressive, but it feels unfair to label this her film exclusively: filmed by a number of occupiers in Tahrir Square, and co-edited by some of them as well, this was always meant to be a collaborative work, as democratic and devoted as the resistance movement it portrays. The word freedom—bandied about by American politicians and news-anchors to a nauseating degree—rarely conveys the idealistic purity that it’s supposed to; yet applied to the aspirations of the individuals we meet in The Square, we may get a sense once more of what this principle actually means.