One of the five finalists for Oscar’s best documentary spot, I finally caught up with DC-born, Egyptian-raised filmmaker Jehane Noujaim’s intense new feature (now in limited showings around the U.S. and streaming—a year after its unfinished version premiered at Sundance—on Netflix). Among the globe’s too many political hotspots, the land of the pyramids was added to the mix with the downfall of its long-ruling dictator in early 2011. Noujaim took up residence with the thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to capture this historical moment. She stayed for the second act. And more.
The film follows the frequent starts, heart wrenching stops, and bloody missteps in the revolutionary struggle. The original symptoms of victory, the misdiagnosis of an Army willing to cure a sick country, the lies that the Army rulers tell and their delay in handing over power and offering up a new constitution six months after that initial triumph. It got worse, way worse, before it got better.
Deadly serious, “The Square” humanizes the events surrounding the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, embedding itself in the middle of the revolutionary events and the aftermath, through to the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership last summer. With 160 hours of footage, it comes down to selecting the right people to tell your story. And the incredible crew of editors to piece it together. Most of the film is shot close up as its featured players “perform” right to the camera.
Plucked from the streets is Ahmed, an angry, twenty-something itinerant worker, narrating his tale of desperation and deprivation, reflecting on his country’s repressed soul. He can’t vocalize enough his abomination of the ruling authority and the Muslim Brotherhood that collaborated with the Army. There’s also Magdy, a mid-40s father of four, tortured by the regime for being part of the Muslim Brotherhood. His is a true story of faith at a crossroads. The most recognizable of the film’s subjects is Khalid Abdalla, star of “The Kite Runner” and other films, whose father was jailed in the 1970s then exiled to London. Never at a loss for identifying with the country of his birth (but still sporting a British accent), he returns to Egypt and takes a lead role that helps shape how the protests are interpreted by the Western press. Another filmmaker, Aida, armed with her camera, becomes a piece of Noujaim’s film, as her interview footage with singer-songwriter Ramy Essam, who recounts, after the second occupation, his arrest, subsequent torture, and eventual escape from Army thugs. (Warning: some of the images are quite disturbing.)
While the regime “overthrow” is proclaimed 15 minutes into “The Square,” it soon becomes obvious this is a faux accomplishment—that the armed forces who have pledged to take up the Egyptian people’s demands are lies. The protesters return two months later because of promises not kept.
The sprinkle of grainy television footage of Mubarak as a ghostly, insincere figurehead, and the flood of YouTube videos of too many horrifying episodes at the hands of the torturous regime’s henchmen, help shape the film’s focus. One step forward, one or more steps back. A community is born before the cameras, demanding an end to the corruption. The establishment strikes back, with tear gas, police batons, and bloodshed. For the protestors, the digital camera becomes their weapon of choice.
A half-year into the revolution, the public took back the Square. Protest music fills the air, tents billow in the summer breeze. A united population of Muslim Brotherhood, Muslims, and Christians. But not for long, as history has already shown. The Brotherhood made a secret deal with the Army, hijacking the sit-in, a political chess move that ultimately backfires.
But there is another problem within Egypt, the failure of any socially-conscious political party from providing a solid agenda. As Ahmed observes, “they’re all failures.”
Ten months after the initial uprising (and not yet an hour into the film), protests heighten above the general anguish. Army tanks race through the crowds around the state television building. Not everyone can escape their metal treads. Army spokesmen, throughout the commotion, offer solipsistic notions that their tactics are necessary or “Hell could break out.” Generals Tantawi and Hamdy Bekheit insist its the protestors who started the mess. That their troops are not firing live ammunition. That the events in the streets are part of an attempt “to smear the image of the Military.” No doubt trained with American dollars buying that great oxymoron, military intelligence. This insincere bravado is incredibly caught by the cameras, all too smug to present their views. Buffoonery in action.
There are too many martyrs in “The Square.” Too many fathers and mothers now without their sons. Too many sisters and brothers filled with emptiness where a beloved sibling once loved them back. Too many others who lost friends in the military’s unmerciful quest to stamp out peaceful protests. Too many bullets raining death in the streets. Too much madness.
“The Square” doesn’t slack for a minute. From one indecency to the next, it showcases the Egyptian Army’s hard-nosed allegiance and unwavering stupidity in dealing with the situation. You, the viewer, will be transfixed and horrified. The war is there whether you watch this in the theater or on your couch.
On May 24, 2012, when Egyptians were electing a new president, it was a sad choice between a representative from the Muslim Brotherhood or Mubarak’s last prime minister. The lesser of two evils, the Brotherhood’s Dr. Mohamed Morsi, wins, barely. Only Ahmed believes their victory will be short-lived. How astute of the young man (elect him, for heavens sake!) to foresee that the more the extremists controlled, the more the Egyptian people will hate them. It is said that to the thieves belong the spoils. Within two years of the revolution’s start, Morsi, nicknamed “The New Pharoah,” is abusing more power than Mubarak, and the people, God bless them, are noticing. So is the media. Finally.
Politics is a strange and violent bedfellow. Jehand Noujaim has pulled away the covers to reveal the nasty doings in Egypt’s bedroom. While the sheets are bloody, there’s a bittersweet, cleansing hope filling the last 15 minutes, as millions of citizens overflow the streets of Cairo and throughout the nation last June 30th, and the aerial cameras capture their determination that Morsi’s term in office is about to expire early. One news report called it the largest demonstration in the history of the world.
Quite a voice. Quite a film.