For those of us who don’t live there, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 may seem like a distant historical event given the speed at which media cycles operate these days. Many may not be aware that that revolution has been ongoing, or at least not to this extent. This has been a battle fought every day for more than two years now, and it’s still not over.
Director Jehane Nouhaim follows several young activists as they occupy Tahrir Square in Cairo, the centre of the maelstrom of politics and violence that follows the revolution. In 2011 these revolutionaries took the square demanding Hosni Mubarak stand down as President after 30 years. He did, and the protestors returned to their lives as asked. As is repeated throughout the film, they should never have left the square.
After Mubarak, the military took interim control of the government until elections could be held. Given that they had simply cut the head off the snake, the corruption within the regime remained and readily returned to brutal violence in order to quash the voice of protest. Later, after Mohamed Morsi is democratically elected and grants himself even more power than Mubarak ever had, the horrifying cycle continues.
The very fact that the footage here exists is incredible in itself. It’s likely one of the first times in history a revolution has been documented in this way from almost the very beginning. The footage—taken on the ground, in the midst of so much upheaval—is at turns inspiring, appalling, moving, and despairing.
The Square is trapped, as Egypt is, between competing ideals. While its main subjects—young Ahmed and star of The Kite Runner Khalid Abdalla—are very much pro-revolution, Magdy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, a religious group and political party, supported the ousting of Mubarak but also supported the Presidency of Morsi. Magdy’s crisis of being trapped between his faith and his politics is one of the most fascinating threads the film explores.
Given that it occurs across an extensive time period, the film exists almost in undefined chapters. One of Nouhaim’s greatest achievements here is the way she handles the tone of footage surrounding each major event, shifting effortlessly between hope and hopelessness. It’s also particularly notable that Nouhaim is a woman, given that the revolution has provided one likely the largest opportunity for women to be politically active in Egypt now that they are more educated than ever.
If there is one base the film doesn’t quite cover it’s the impact of social media. Much has been written and said about how useful social media has been in the various Arab Spring uprisings; as one activist tweeted at the time, “We use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.” While we see footage played on YouTube, The Square mostly ignores the influence of these organisational tools.
It’s an incredibly powerful film; some of the footage is used to devastating effect. It doesn’t hold back in showing the sheer malice with which security forces turned on their own people. The film allows for two representatives from the military to have their input into the film’s narrative, and they are typically boorish, insensitive, ignorant, and despicably aloof. When a man shows the military spokesman a photo of a friend who had been shot, he looks at it for a second and says, “That’s not an army bullet.” Reality threatens their hold on power, so they create a warped reality of their own.
Having won the Audience Award for Documentary at both the Sundance and Toronto film festivals, The Square has already been a success at reaching audiences. Having been picked up for theatrical and online distribution by Netflix, there is a good chance it will be seen by many more. A film as well-crafted, prescient, and unreservedly necessary as The Square deserves to be.
[rating=4] and a half
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.