Now on Netflix, the Oscar-nominated documentary THE SQUARE is an enthralling on-the-ground portrait of a revolution.
Our biggest mistake was leaving the square. We’re like the kid who writes an essay and doesn’t put his name on it.
To begin, Middle Eastern politics is a Gordian knot, and I only have a cursory understanding over just what has taken place in Egypt these past three years even after viewing this documentary, so any factual errors in this review are mine alone. But I want to understand, so I did the best I could.
When the “Arab Spring” began in 2011, it was a time of wild optimism and hope, as young idealists in Cairo took control of Tahrir Square for weeks on end, ultimately driving the corrupt president Hosni Mubarak from office. The western world rejoiced along with the Egyptians, who longed desperately for a true people-led democracy and were willing to give their lives to see it come into being. But as the months — and later, years — dragged on, and one totalitarian regime was replaced with another, and people still continued to protest, the vast majority of us in America simply shrugged and turned our attention elsewhere, chalking it up to the toxicity of an ecosystem beyond saving.
Navigating the varied, polarized demographics of a place like Egypt is challenging for the best of statesmen, but more so if you don’t have a grasp of the emotions at play. What Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square manages to do is put us inside the maelstrom, alongside these “freedom fighters,” and gives a very human face to the droning abstractions heard on CNN or BBC News.
Noujaim is Egyptian-American, but she grew up just blocks from Tahrir Square, and utilized a team of like-minded revolutionaries to document the uprising in real time. Anyone who had a camcorder, DSLR, or even an iPhone was tasked with capturing anything they could, primarily to use as evidence to show the rest of the world (via YouTube) just what atrocities were being committed. One of the group’s leaders, and one of three men The Square focuses on, is Khalid Abdella — a famous actor, appearing in The Kite Runner and United 93 — who uses his reputation and trim English accent to his advantage in interviews with Anderson Cooper, and when giving impassioned speeches from the makeshift podium.
The second character is a young man named Ahmed, whose wide-eyed optimism and poet’s heart makes him a crucial figure in rallying people to the cause. As the eternal wait in the square turns to jubilation with Mubarak’s announcement, there’s a unity felt amongst the Egyptians like never before: Muslims and Christians, of different political stripes, have put aside their differences to chant and sing with one voice, and act as “one hand.” When they are reassured by the military that their demands will now be met, they disperse and wait with bated breath for a new Constitution, the dissolution of the Secret Police, and the election of a new President.
One Islamist, a family man named Magdy, hopes that “Maybe people will now think better of the Muslim Brotherhood,” the notorious group that he’s a part of. Despite his hard-right political leanings, Magdy — who was once tortured by Mubarak’s men — is good friends with the more secular Ahmed and Khalid, and it is this trio’s story that the documentary tells over the course of two and a half years, as the pendulum swings back and forth — from celebration, to mistrust, to agony, and back again to hope.
Despite the military’s promise that they will never fire on the people, it soon becomes clear that the new regime is no better than the old one. There’s still no plan for a new Constitution, people are still getting kidnapped, and nothing that was supposed to have changed has changed. (“That’s not an army bullet,” one general lies through his teeth when shown a photograph of a wounded protester.) Everyone is eager to take credit for the revolution; the military says they made it happen, but Ahmed speaks for many when he says he knows better: “The good and free people are being called traitors, while the traitors are being called heroes.”
But Noujaim and her army of cinematographers (not to mention editors) stick with the story, placing themselves in increasingly violent and dangerous situations. When the Army sends in tanks to displace the hundreds of protesters, the camera not only doesn’t shy away, you’re left in mortal fear for the life of its operator. We huddle in doorways and alleys, dodge tear gas canisters, and see the faces of the determined insurgents in starkly beautiful detail. There is a palpable, sweaty sense of danger amidst the bullets, explosions, and riot police that is almost intoxicating; impossible to comprehend, and impossible to look away from.
The most fascinating figure in The Square is Magdy, who first risks banishment from the Brotherhood by participating in the protests (the organization is striking a deal with the military to install a third, hard-line Islamist government), and becomes increasingly disillusioned as he must answer to his friends for what the Brotherhood is up to, while still attempting to keep his family safe. “This is what our revolution has won,” he deadpans, motioning to the tear-streaked face of his terrified daughter. Ahmed and Khalil believe the Brotherhood has essentially hijacked the revolution, and have manipulated the situation for their own political gain. For Ahmed, it was never about politics, it was about freedom — and as he sees more and more of his friends torn to pieces (even taking a bullet to his own head in one mesmerizing sequence), he comes close to his breaking point: “There’s only so much you can see; at some point I’m going to explode.”
The Square is an endlessly compelling look at what comes after the streets have been cleared, and idealism gives way to the practical realities of the world. Like Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia, young intelligent leaders like Ahmed and Khalil will forever be frustrated because they don’t have either the aptitude or the desire to enter politics themselves; their passion alone isn’t enough to bring about the “new day” they fervently hope for. They may also make the mistake of assuming they speak for more Egyptians than they do; with Mubarak gone, the forces battling within Cairo quickly snap back to their own trenches, and no progressive presidential candidate will ever get elected with the conservative Brotherhood running the show. There are also far many more normal citizens who are just sick of the fighting altogether; as one older woman says, “We just want a decent man to rule with justice. I don’t even care if he’s a Jew.”
The film is unquestionably one-sided — we spend precious little time with the military, and none at all inside the Brotherhood — but it believes so strongly in its point of view that that subjectiveness is not necessarily a problem. If there are ever answers given to Ahmed’s accusations, we don’t hear them, because Ahmed knows they’re empty anyway.
At the end of the film, and today, the story is still far from over. Leading to a total re-cut of the film well after its original premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, Noujaim and her team returned to Cairo to capture the usurpation of the Brotherhood-backed President Morsi, and see those who fought back against the military in 2011 rejoice in its return to power in 2013. A considerably less-ebullient Ahmed remarks “This is our life now. I’ll stay in the streets.” He’ll wait for the next regime. For as long as it takes.