The film's greatest victory isn't simply that it makes you feel like you're in Tahrir Square; it's that it makes you want to be there.
The Square captures the chaotic energy of the Egyptian mass protests of 2011 and 2013, a rush of sights and sounds shot at street level that blitzes the senses as it quickens the heart. It’s not as informative a documentary as some may expect, but it wasn’t designed that way; director Jehane Noujaim is more interested in the swelling spirit of the Egyptian people–a handful of charismatic revolutionaries in particular–than the political machinations that incited them.
Egypt has been in a state of imbalance since January 2011, when thousands gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to stage a weeks-long mass protest against dictator Hosni Mubarak. Their devotion to change paid off as Mumbarak stepped down, but their celebration was premature, as the military regime left in the dictator’s wake became violently oppressive, abusing and firing live rounds on demonstrators, killing many. High-ranking military officers (some of which Noujaim interviews in the film) smugly denied the involvement of soldiers in the killings, despite overwhelming video evidence to the contrary. Then came the election of Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi, who turned out to be even more manipulative than his predecessor, granting himself more power than most Egyptians felt comfortable with. The revolutionaries ousted him, too, and (regrettably) violently reprimanded his followers in the Brotherhood. Such a sustained demonstration of defiance had never been seen before, and though the country remains splintered, the protests indicated an impending shift in Egyptian consciousness.
Noujaim (who grew up just blocks away from Tahrir Square) and her film crew (all of whom she met in the square during the initial protest) were running in the streets with cameras for two, following the film’s characters through all of the elections, military killings, heated debates, rousing victories, and bitter defeats. It’s amazing how ubiquitous the crew’s cameras are, filming the events in the middle of the square, up on overlooking rooftops, in tight alleys, and right on the front lines of military/protester standoffs. Some shots–like footage of innocent people getting run over by a tank–are so gruesome and overwhelming you’ll quiver. Others are gorgeous and moving, like aerial shots of the Cairo streets impossibly flooded by millions of demonstrators. Every moment feels vital. The Arab Spring will be written about and discussed for decades to come, but nothing will ever convey how the revolution felt better than The Square does.
Noujaim’s depiction of the revolution is as intimate as it is spectacular, focusing on viewing the events through the eyes of select individuals, all of whom come from different backgrounds and offer unique perspectives. The Kite Runner actor Khalid Abdalla returned to Cairo from England for the 2011 protests and became an invaluable asset to the movement due to his eloquent way with words and his link to Western media outlets. Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, finds himself torn between two factions as he stands with the demonstrators in the square while he’s ridiculed for his Brotherhood affiliation.
The beating heart of the film is Ahmed Hassan, a young, charismatic, cocky loudmouth who epitomizes everything the revolution stands for. He’s constantly engaging in intense public debates with anyone who’ll listen, attracting large crowds with his booming voice and fiery eyes. He’s an incredible talker, and rivals the wonderful Man on Wire‘s Philippe Petit in his magnetism and charm.
Of the many conversations and debates seen throughout the film, Ashour’s are the most fascinating, as he’s constantly accosted by friends, family, and strangers alike about his allegiances. His mother disapproves of his participation in the revolution, saying that her son is out on the streets, “playing revolutionary”, while the Brotherhood (who have supported him financially for years) suffer beatings at the hands of the same demonstrators he stands with in the square.
Late in the film, Hassan says that he believes the greatest victory of the revolution is that children have now taken to playing a game where they pretend to be revolutionaries, acting out faux demonstrations where they demand more ice cream, for example. Hassan’s sentiment is an interesting juxtaposition to Ashour’s mother’s “playing revolutionary” slight, serving as an illustration of where the Egyptian consciousness used to be, and where it’s headed.
Noujaim is clearly on the side of the secularists, capturing little to nothing of the Muslim Brotherhood perspective, the same people who are dying in the streets for their beliefs. She very much portrays government officials, the military, and the Brotherhood as “others”, making the film a clouded and partial historical document at best. But this hardly matters; the film doesn’t operate as an educational guide to the revolution, existing more as a snapshot of the emergence of a new Egyptian identity.
The Square is an engrossing, transportive experience, but more importantly, it’s a galvanizing one. The film’s greatest victory isn’t simply that it makes you feel like you’re in Tahrir Square; it’s that it makes you want to be there.