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The Square Documentary Review Essay

Back in January, when Sundance preemed Jehane Noujaim’s “The Square,” the documentary was considered the last word in chronicling the turbulence of post-Revolutionary Cairo. But with unrest and uncertainty continuing in Egypt, that version is now labeled a work in progress, and the filmmakers have an update, re-edited and longer by about eight minutes. Continuing to follow a group of activists as they rally against the undue powers of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army, “The Square” understands that the Revolution itself is a work in progress, and while its immediacy means it, too, will soon be superseded, it stands as a vigorous, useful account.

SEE ALSO: Film Review: “The Square” (original version)

After the extraordinarily cohesive rallies that ousted Hosni Mubarak in early February 2011, the Revolution — some now misguidedly question the term — quickly became a fragmented, divisive and messy clash of movements whose complexity doesn’t lend itself to linear documaking. Noujaim does a good job of filtering the power struggles progressively through the battered determination of a handful of activists, yet due to her resilient, unflagging approach, full of bruised but optimistic promise, “The Square” remains a simplified, easily understandable primer for the partly informed wanting to cheer a just cause. Audience prizes at Sundance and Toronto speak to the need for such an approach, though those who have been keenly following developments from the start will likely find the film commendable yet limited.

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As before, Noujaim briefly mentions the paralysis under 30 years of Mubarak rule, followed by the explosion of excitement that the people, united, will never be defeated. In those days Tahrir Square offered a heady sense of cohesiveness that crossed social and religious boundaries, as brave protesters called for the end of the regime. Sadly, whereas in 2011, images of the jubilation following Mubarak’s resignation could provoke tears of joy, now they tend to generate a sense of pained cynicism.

The activists Noujaim follows form a relatively diverse group, from well-educated, privileged sons and daughters of the middle class — such as actor Khalid Abdalla, whose father Hossam presciently warns against trusting the army — to the working-class, impressively articulate Ahmed Hassan, and Muslim Brotherhood member Magdy Ashour. At the start, their single purpose unites them, but as the political situation gets out of hand and the Brotherhood takes over, Ashour’s divided loyalties — friends on one side, unforgiving politico-religious party on the other — cause a predictable rift.

“The Square” now goes up to summer 2013, allowing the director to cover not only Mohamed Morsi’s election but his removal by the army. Noujaim doesn’t address the infuriating insistence by much Western media that Morsi was legitimately elected, ignoring as they do his forfeiture of legitimacy after assuming extra-constitutional powers. Through it all, the activists she profiles maintain their opposition to all deviations from the original goals of the Revolution, whether embodied in the crypto-fascism of the Brotherhood or the frightening grip of the military junta.

The docu doesn’t shy away from calling the Brotherhood out on its calculated rise to power, stating as incontrovertible a deal with the army that allowed them to take control of the political situation. Following this line of thought, the conclusion is that the military knew all along the Brotherhood wouldn’t be able to sustain a consensus and simply bided their time until July 2013 when they removed Morsi from office, taking dictatorial powers in a way that may exceed even Mubarak’s authoritarianism. However, this is not investigative reporting.

What Noujaim leaves out is the sense of demoralization and burnout that’s plagued many activists as well as the general Egyptian population. Also, she barely mentions the increased tension between Coptic Christians and Muslims, and how sectarian strife plays into the hands of those in power. Also missing is a discussion of the sexual harassment in Tahrir Square, and while footage of the “blue bra woman” viciously beaten by military police is included, no context or identification is given. Additionally problematic is that the film fails to explain the Scylla-and-Charybdis problem in the 2012 presidential campaign, when the liberal electorate couldn’t stomach voting for Mubarak crony Ahmed Shafik and reluctantly cast their ballots for Morsi.

Of course, covering all these issues would have required a miniseries, and Noujaim’s focus on just a few dogged activists (some of whom have appeared in other docus) was likely the best way of capturing the spirit of the protest movement. As with the earlier version, the new pic boasts exceptional footage, expertly edited, and is a testament to the bravery of the determined cameramen and women whose belief in the cause equals that of the activists on the other side of the lens. By the end, notwithstanding the army’s overreaching power grab, Hassan and others remain convinced that “people power” can be harnassed for good; the only sly hint of doubt Noujaim sneaks in is when the mantra “The people demand the fall of the regime” is juxtaposed with a shot of children chanting, “The people demand chocolate for kids.” Surely, as people like Hassan and Abdalla know, recapturing the unanimity of January 2011 will be the greatest challenge of all.

Film Review: 'The Square'

Reviewed on DVD, Rome, Nov. 1, 2013. (In Toronto Film Festival — TIFF Docs; New York – Official Selection; Hamptons). Running time: 103 MIN. Original title: "Al midan"


(Documentary — U.S.-Egypt) A Noujaim Films, Maktube Prods. production, in association with Roast Beef Prods., Worldview. (International sales: Goldcrest Films Intl., London.) Produced by Karim Amer. Executive producers, Sarah Johnson, Khalil Noujaim, Geralyn Dreyfous, Jodie Evans, Lekha Singh, Alexandra Johnes, Gavin Dougan, Mike Lerner. Co-executive producers, Nicole Guillemet, Maxyne Franklin, Arif Naqvi.


Directed by Jehane Noujaim. Camera (color), Muhammed Hamdy, Ahmed Hassan, Noujaim, Cressida Trew; editors, Pedro Kos, Christopher de la Torre, Pierre Haberer, Muhamed El Manasterly, Stefan Ronowiscz; music, H. Scott Salinas, Jonas Colstrup; sound, Tom Paul; supervising sound editor, John Nutt; associate producers, Cressida Trew, Yasmin Kamel.


Khalid Abdalla, Magdy Ashour, Ramy Essam, Ahmed Hassan, Buthayna Kamel, Aida El Kashef, Ragia Omran, Pierre Sioufi, General Hamdy Bekheit, Mona Anis, Hossam Abdalla. (Arabic, English dialogue)

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What does a revolution feel like from the inside? I’m not sure we’ll ever get closer than “The Square,” an electrifying, at times heartbreaking documentary from the Egyptian-born, Harvard-educated documentarian Jehane Noujaim (“Control Room”).

The title refers to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the Arab Spring of 2011 spontaneously coalesced, energized, and erupted, resulting in President Hosni Mubarak’s removal from power after 30 years of rule. But because the story has continued to evolve, dramatically so in recent months, Noujaim’s film is longer (by eight minutes) than when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago. (The new version was just nominated for a DGA award and made the shortlist for best feature documentary Oscar nominations, which were announced Thursday morning, after this review went to press.) The film’s tenor has changed, too. It now also shows what betrayal feels like, on all sides.

The early scenes of “The Square,” of course, are a group portrait of joyous disbelief. The director follows a balanced handful of young Egyptians — faces in the crowd of the Square — from the midpoint of the 2011 uprising, just as it’s gathering critical mass. Actor Khalid Abdalla, raised in Scotland and the star of “The Kite Runner” (2007), has come back to a homeland he barely knows to man the barricades and press for change. Magdy Ashour is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who finds common cause and unlikely friendships with the secular revolutionaries.

There’s a young woman, a blogger named Aida Elkashef, but, frustratingly, we don’t see much of her. And there’s the movie’s undisputed star, a raffish lower-class kid named Ahmed Hassan who’s barely out of adolescence when the uprising begins and who, two years later, is fully wise to the ways of the world. That Ahmed holds on to his ideals and irrepressible sense of commitment in the face of all the Egyptian military and the Brotherhood can throw at his country is the movie’s most convincing claim to hope for the future.

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And, honestly, it’s Ahmed who has his ear closest to the ground. When the military forces elections early after Mubarak’s ouster and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi is reluctantly voted in by many protesters, the young man hazards a guess that the new president is sowing the seeds for his own downfall. “The more they control, the more the people will hate them,” he says of the Brotherhood.

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Ahmed also sees the hand of the military behind every new development, and is it paranoia when you’re probably right? If “The Square” were more interested in pressing a political case and digging deeper, it might do more than hint at a “soft coup” two years in the making. (The country’s top general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seen toward the end of the movie, is now readying his own candidacy for top office.)

“Fighting your own people is harder than fighting a regime,” Aida despairs as the rift between the Brotherhood and other Egyptian groups widens. After the actual coup — when Morsi was removed from office by the military in July 2013 and a series of violent reprisals against his followers ensued — we see the firebrands of Tahrir Square struggle to keep their goal of a free, democratic Egypt in sight. Magdy, earlier seen urging his son to “think for yourself” rather than act on orders from Brotherhood leaders, fears for his life but remains friends with Ahmed. And this fierce, impassioned work of documentary impressionism ends with nothing resolved other than that its main characters remain ready to fill the streets as necessary. Says Khalid, the prodigal actor, “We won’t know if this revolution has succeeded for decades.”

Ty Burr can be reached at ty.burr@globe.com.

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