When people take to the streets, filmmakers follow them. This is true now more than ever. In our already chaotic 21st century it even seems as if every revolutionary is a filmmaker, armed with a cell phone camera and a Twitter account. Narrating a revolution through images has become just as collaborative an act as the revolution itself. To make a documentary in response to such a plural publicized event requires a very specific vision, a strategy to navigate the tempest of media coverage, independent videography, and constant social and political change. There is no single way to meet this challenge head-on.
And so, with that bit of theory aside: Jehane Noujaim has done something extraordinary with The Square, her new documentary of the Egyptian Revolution. She was there in Tahrir Square almost from the very beginning, when President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of office. That was February of 2011. Noujaim and her crew stayed, filming a small group of activists through the election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohammed Morsi on June 16–17th, 2012. She finished editing the first cut of The Square and took it to Sundance this past January (where it won the Audience Award for World Cinema — Documentary). Then, this summer, people flooded back into the streets to protest Morsi’s granting of unlimited powers to himself. Noujaim went back, got more footage, and re-cut the film.
This last cut, which follows the events in Egypt through the fall of Morsi in July, needs its final act for two reasons. One of them is obvious: the journalistic necessity of keeping the story up to date. This keeps The Square from already feeling like old news as it plays film festivals for the rest of 2013. But inevitably the situation in Egypt will continue to change, and the factual usefulness of the film will diminish. It’s the narrative itself, the way that the events of this summer change the story of the activists that are profiled, that will keep us coming back to The Square for years to come.
Noujaim accomplishes this by keeping a narrow focus on Tahrir Square itself. There are a number of significant characters, but only three of them really dominate the narrative. The first is Ahmed Hassan, a young revolutionary who also shot quite a bit of footage for the film. Second is Magdy Ashour, a middle-aged father of four and longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose presence in the Square occasionally puts him at odds with Brotherhood higher-ups. Finally, Khalid Abdulla is a British-Egyptian actor (The Kite Runner, United 93) whose parents were longtime anti-Mubarak activists.
The Egyptian Revolution is filtered through the experience of these three men as they come and go from Tahrir Square. Magdy’s constant balancing act between his young, more secularist friends and the Muslim Brotherhood is a touchstone for the similar debate happening in the nation at large. Far away on the political spectrum, Khalid argues with his parents about revolutionary tactics. Ahmed, meanwhile, can appear as an emotional conduit for the entire revolution, running at riot police and engaging in shouting matches with members of the Brotherhood in the Square. These ‘characters,’ along with others profiled less thoroughly in the film, illustrate a plurality of perspective in Egyptian society while still remaining tightly connected to a single place.
When Noujaim went back to film this past summer’s revolt against Morsi, she was capturing one last chapter in her narrative. In this way, The Square is almost like a novel, with characters that both assert their independence and stand in for larger elements of their society. The revolutionaries themselves are a way in for the audience, leading to a prosaic representation of truth. As heroes, they draw forth our admiration, but as men with complicated lives and genuine struggles, they offer a window into the truth of their world. The Square, in this way, is nothing short of literature.
This review was originally published during the New York Film Festival on October 3, 2013.