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Monday, March 3, 2014

Review: The Square (2013)

* * * *

Director: Jehane Noujaim

Jehane Noujaim's The Square is a remarkable documentary for numerous reasons, not least of which is that it manages to chart the increasingly complex progress of a revolution over the course of two years. Focusing on a handful of revolutionaries as they cycle through periods of anger, hope, disappointment, and back again, the film is as much about action as it is about the durability of spirit. There are no clean victories depicted in the film - each victory or loss leads into a new battle - but the desire for change, and for voices to finally be heard, is the continuous and powerful thread that runs from one end of the film to the other. Through its use of handheld footage which sometimes depicts scenes of unspeakable brutality, The Square offers a front row seat to a revolution.

The Square begins in 2011 with Egyptians gathering en mass in Tahrir Square in demonstration against Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's President from 1981 to 2011. Among the demonstrators are Ahmed, a young idealist whose frustrations sometimes get the better of him, Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who, despite his political affiliation, believes that people must think for themselves rather than blindly take orders, and Khalid, a British-Egyptian actor who, as depicted by the film, becomes a bridge between what's happening on the ground in Egypt and the international media. The occupation of Tahrir Square results, eventually, in the resignation of Mubarak and the withdrawal of protesters from the Square, a decision which many will come to regret once they see how little has changed between the old regime and the new one. The face of corruption has been removed, but not the corruption itself, and so more demonstrations take place, this time more violent as it pits the revolutionaries against the military junta. In its aftermath, elections take place and the Muslim Brotherhood takes power with Mohamed Morsi declared President.

The conflict between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and revolutionaries who are not associated with the group becomes an increasing focus of the film. From the perspective of the non-members portrayed in The Square, the Muslim Brotherhood is an opportunistic association which hijacked the revolution for its own ends and made backdoor deals with the military to the detriment of everyone else. Ahmed is particularly vocal in expressing this view, bringing him into conflict with Magdy and other Muslim Brotherhood members, sometimes devolving into screaming matches in the street. Unlike Mubarak, Morsi's tenure in power is relatively brief, as demonstrators once again take to the streets (in even larger number than against Mubarak) to force his resignation. As the film ends, the new dictator removed and an interim President installed, the subjects of the film seem optimistic about the future, though Noujaim is quick to remind the audience of the costs incurred in getting to this point, and the fact that the fight isn't over yet.

The Square is not for the faint of heart, as it contains a number of horrifying images from clashes between demonstrators and the military, and the aftermath of those clashes. Although the film occasionally views events from a distance in order to capture the sheer magnitude of what is happening (overhead shots which show the crowds demonstrating against first Mubarek and then Morsi are staggering to behold), for the most part the film is right in the thick of things, the images sometimes blurry as the camera person flees scenes of escalating violence. It's an intense and harrowing experience to watch this film, to see the suffering and scars left in the wake of these events with such brutal immediacy. That sense of immediacy is probably the film's greatest strength, pushing it forward through the multiple phases of its story.

It should be said that The Square is very narrow in its focus, providing a picture of recent events in Egypt and not the whole picture. The film does not, for example, touch on the sexual assaults which took place during protests in Tahrir Square, nor does it expend much time providing context to the tensions between the Muslim Brotherhood and the rest of the population. However, the limited nature of The Square's focus can perhaps be forgiven since it's ultimately less about a thorough examination and analysis of events than it is about the feelings that drive certain people to participate in those events, and about the idealism that allows those people to carry on even in the face of violence and intimidation. The trio of men who provide the bulk of the film's perspective are compelling narrators, each of whom has distinct point-of-view and a particular experience of the events, and though the film may have benefited by broadening its scope by spending more time with any of the women who appear briefly throughout this accounting (particularly Aida Elkashef who, like the men, is in the thick of the demonstrations depicted in the film), The Square is nevertheless a powerful piece of filmmaking.

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