The Square — nominated in the feature documentary category at this year’s Oscars — is a powerful film about the would-be revolution that began in 2011 with protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Much of the movie’s force comes from personalizing the events that led to Hosni Mubarak’s stepping down after 30 years in power.
Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim ( Control Room) sympathizes with the protesters, giving us the view from the streets filled by mostly young idealists hoping to push their nation toward democracy. Emblematic of these highly energized activists is Ahmed Hassan, a passionate and personable man in his mid-20s who declares, “Good things are coming! Good things!”
The widely publicized protests in the square generated this kind of intense optimism, which briefly seems justified, and reached a peak when Mubarak resigned in February 2011. Much was made of the use of social media, cameras and computers by the demonstrators to win support in the outside world.
A different perspective is offered by Magdy Ashour, an older family man whose membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, which long opposed Mubarak, led to his imprisonment and torture by the regime.
The idealists soon learn that their erstwhile comrades in the Brotherhood have their own agenda. When Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s presidential candidate, is elected and quickly takes on even more powers than his predecessor, protests erupt again, leading to his ouster.
There are harrowing scenes of brutality as the army moves in to clear Tahrir Square. It seems, at least for now, that the protesters were simply out of their depth.
Noujaim’s third major figure is Khalid Abdalla, the British-Egyptian actor ( The Kite Runner) and second-generation activist who winds up as something of a spokesman for the protesters. He is the most articulate of the trio and seems like a pragmatist. His opposition to elections (he mistrusts all political parties) earns him the scorn of one die-hard revolutionary, but he is able to make a reasoned argument.
Of course, political events don’t stand still for documentary makers. The material about Morsi’s election and ouster was added after the movie premiered at the Sundance Festival, where it won an audience award.
Egypt still doesn’t have the government the idealists wanted, but that shouldn’t be a cause for cynicism. By the film’s end, Hassan has regained some of his enthusiasm, and it sounds like the activists are in it for the long run.
In English and Arabic with English subtitles
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