The power of the people keeps making itself known in the story of The Square, a documentary film from director Jehane Noujaim that goes right into the center of the revolution unfolding in Egypt’s Tahrir Square over the last two years. It won the Audience Award at Sundance, the People’s Choice Documentary award at the Toronto International Film Festival, has been shortlisted for the Oscar, and now, it’s been picked up by Netflix. All this, for a film shot cinéma vérité-style by revolutionaries on the ground, in the midst of the action, often under the harshest of conditions.
Producer Karim Amer, in a discussion with radio host Terrence McNally on Pacifica Radio, said that The Square shows the power of the camera, in that one shot – no matter who takes it – can challenge the established narrative as the events that would be history unfold.
In the film, we follow Ahmad, Magdy, and Khalid, three revolutionaries who meet in the Square and find themselves in the center of history as it’s happening. They’re all very different. Ahmad is a young street poet who put himself through school selling lemons from the age of 5. Magdy is a conflicted member of the Muslim Brotherhood with five kids at home. Khalid Abdallah is a British actor known for roles in The Kite Runner and United 93, who has returned to his parents’ homeland to join the fight he sees as vital.
The film is overwhelming and visceral. It opens with the powerful energy the world saw in the first 18 days that ended with the end of the 30-year reign of President Hosni Mubarak. But here, the cameras keep rolling long after the international media had gone home, capturing the moments when things started to change: the military turns against the people, the Muslim Brotherhood co-opts the revolution for political gain, violence breaks out, and the movement claims its first martyrs. The filmmakers never stop rolling, catching on camera even the gruesome moment civilians are run over by the Army’s tanks. So, it is also harrowing, like the revolution itself: hard to watch, seemingly interminable, at times dark, exhausting.
Tahrir Square viewed from above, inundated with protesters that collectively ignited the Arab Spring, looks like the beating heart of the revolution that it came to represent. The filmmakers have achieved something incredible – in no small part thanks to editor Pedro Kos – in culling a beautifully shot, emotionally affecting film from over 1600 hours of footage.
This doesn’t even include countless hours of footage that was confiscated by the authorities. “Everyone on the team was arrested at least once,” Amer said. They shot on DSLR cameras in part because, in the beginning, they were mistaken for photography cameras rather than video, so the filmmakers were able to get away with a lot more filming on the ground.
This version of the film covers nearly three years in recent history, from the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2011, right up to the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in August 2013. The original cut – the one screened at Sundance – ended with the June 30, 2012 election that put Morsi in power.
“It was a compromised ending,” Amer said of the original cut. As it turned out, the so-called “democratic” election was hardly that, and the Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi proved hardly the leader the Revolutionaries were fighting for.
The filmmakers were compelled to go back to Tahrir, and the final cut of the film runs right up to August of 2013, when Morsi stepped down. That’s not to say there’s a happy ending now – the political situation remains unresolved, and “Egypt is in a dark time right now,” Amer said.
But on the whole, The Square is hopeful. It organically illuminates the power of expression, even without a common language; the bulk of the film is in subtitled Arabic, but it is compelling regardless. The message of the revolution comes through in the protest songs ringing out over Tahrir, in the graffiti images interspersed throughout the film, in crisply edited footage the revolutionaries uploaded to YouTube.
If the film has a weakness, it’s in the stories it doesn’t have time to tell. Aida and Ragia, an activist and a lawyer, are two forceful women whose stories are sidelined in favor of following the narrative unfolding in the heart of the Square. They are riveting in their few short moments on screen, but we lose track of them as we get back to the three men at the heart of the story.
The Square is a powerful show of documentary filmmaking that manages to be impressive cinematically and historically: here is footage of history as it happens, art as record of an important moment for the people.