The Square

The revolution, televised

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

With props to Gil Scott-Heron and his 1971 spoken-word classic The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.

Because one of the lessons of The Square—Jehane Noujaim’s unblinking, Oscar-nominated documentary about the mass gatherings in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 and the roiling changes they set into motion—might be that even when the revolution looks like its being globally televised, it really isn’t being captured in all its aching, dogged, vulnerable complexity.

Those mass protests led to the February 2011 resignation of longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. But Noujaim’s film attests to how quickly joyous weeping in the streets gave way to sectarian arguments over the army’s role and fissures in promising alliances of Christians and Muslims, men and women, secular Arabs and members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Noujaim’s approach is cinéma vérité, but The Square doesn’t feel like fly-on-the-wall observations. It’s more intimate due to the ubiquity of new technologies and apps like Twitter and cell- phone cameras. Hurrah, the selfies that matter.

Which doesn’t mean The Square is a rough-hewn outing. Noujaim has made a visually inviting film, rife with revealing, earnest interviews but also rich with strong images and the necessary moments of emptier space and the silences that help us learn from them.

Central protagonists include British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner); Muslim Brotherhood activist Magdy Ashour; human-rights lawyer Ragia Omran; the revolution’s troubadour, Ramy Essam; street-tempered 20-something Ahmed Hassan; and media maverick Aida El Kashef, also in her 20s.

Although Noujaim interviews military officials, much of the movie is spent with “the people”—the activists, as well as others who believe in a “society of conscience.”

Only at times one gets the eerie sense that being with the people is not the same as being in the company of those making power plays for the Arab nation’s future.

In January of 2013, The Square won the audience prize at the Sundance Film Festival. In July of that year, Mohamed Morsi’s short-lived presidency came to an end. The filmmakers returned to Egypt afterward because events worked against anything like “closure.”

“We knew that the story was not over, so we returned to the streets to capture what would become the second part of the story,” said the filmmaker in a statement.

“The Square” provides cautionary as well as aspirational lessons. It’s ridiculous, yet not entirely false, to venture that ousting Mubarak was the easy part. Nurturing and sustaining democracy remains the challenging dream. Noujaim’s characters prove to be engaging stewards of that vision.

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