Currently nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature, “The Square” is a chronicle of events taking place during Egypt’s revolution from January 2011 to the summer of 2013. Directed by Jehane Noujaim, the film follows various characters as history happens in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where protesters demanded the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power. As the years go by, everyone from activists to politicians learn that the transition to democracy will not be easy.
Noujaim shows many people onscreen, but a recurring character is Ahmed Hassan, a young man who has been going from one job to the next since he was eight years old. Believing his misfortune is the result of Mubarak’s unjust regime he found thousands of like-minded people in Tahrir Square through social media. Hoping to end decades of corruption, ignorance, and poverty, he became friends with Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, singer Ramy Essam, whose songs gained popularity among the demonstrators, and Khalid Abdalla, an actor who gained prominence after roles in films such as “The Kite Runner.” After Mubarak announced he would step down on February 11 a wave of joy swept through the square, regardless of religion or politics. It was truly a beautiful moment, perfectly captured on screen.
Unfortunately the sweeping changes Hassan expected for his generation did not occur immediately after. Over the years Tahrir Square would empty and then fill up again as protesters would find yet another roadblock in their path to freedom, starting with the military. Refusing to relinquish Emergency Law, the soldiers soon became a major threat for anyone staying in the square. A conflict in front of a television station is especially brutal, as the footage shows military vehicles running over anybody standing in their way.
Politics and religion made matters more complicated. The country wanted an election, but many such as Khalid Abdalla argued it was too soon. There were no strong parties on the ballot and the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of collaborating with the military to gain political favors. Even Magdy Ashour, who for years was persecuted because of his religion, eventually became uneasy with their tactics. The election resulted in the presidency of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood with slightly more then 50 per cent of the vote, but his leadership soon led to even more clashes. The powers he gave himself earned him the nickname the “New Pharaoh” and the impression he was even worse than Mubarak. Aerial footage from a protest in 2013 on the anniversary of his election shows a veritable sea of people lining up from Tahrir Square to the edge of the city. It was thought to be the largest demonstration in the world.
The footage truly brings you into the center of the action. These people knew social media was a new tool they could exploit and when they grew dissatisfied with the way the media was portraying the conflict they decided to bypass them by filming everything on small digital cameras, editing the footage on Final Cut off their laptops, and uploading it on YouTube for the world to see. When Khalid has disagreements with his father, also an anti-regime activist, they have discussions over Skype on how to proceed amid the chaos.
As a movie, it is difficult for “The Square” to follow a three-act narrative structure since the story is most definitely not over. As Khalid says, it may take decades to know if the revolution was a success. However, as a first hand account of life changing events, this is a truly remarkable documentary featuring footage that is both violent and intimate. You see these individuals fight for their freedom, discuss what they want for their country, and you see them hope for their future. If the movie makes one thing abundantly clear it is that they still have a long road ahead.
(“The Square” was released on Netflix Originals.)