Bringing calm insight to an impassioned, still-developing historic event, the documentary The Square looks at the 2011 Egyptian Revolution from the perspective of those who were on the frontlines from the very beginning, personalizing the dramatic developments without losing a sense of the greater stakes. Director Jehane Noujaim, who previously helmed Control Room and co-directed Startup.com, has delivered a snapshot of a grassroots political movement over its bumpy two-year history, embracing the emotional complexity and logistical obstacles that have made Egyptians’ road to democracy so difficult.
Noujaim’s previous films have tackled significant current-event subjects—the dot-com bubble of the late ’90s, the media’s role in reporting the Iraq War—and sought to put a face on the issues by following a few individuals involved in those worlds. That same approach pays off handsomely in The Square as Noujaim chronicles the evolution of the Egyptian Revolution through the actions of select protestors. Among them are Khalid Abdalla, an actor in United 93 and The Kite Runner who was part of the first group who occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo in early 2011 to demand the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s leader since 1981. The Square doesn’t spend much time delving into Egyptians’ grievances with Mubarak—which included his use of a secret police force to torture and intimidate his political opponents—instead focusing on people like Abdalla as they mobilize public protests for his removal.
The early stretches of The Square chronicle the initial Tahrir Square occupation, playing up the optimism felt within different factions—both young and old, Christians and Muslims—who were energized by the possibility of a free Egypt. But soon the public euphoria in response to Mubarak’s resignation gives way to frustration and disillusionment as Abdalla and others discover just how challenging it will be to produce real regime change.
Utilizing no voiceover narration and only a handful of intertitles that inform the viewer about the exact time period of events, The Square seeks to create an urgent, immediate experience that tells its story through the reactions of its main participants. Beyond Abdalla’s articulate, thoughtful presence, the film draws much of its power from Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been banned by Mubarak. Tortured during Mubarak’s reign for his allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood, Ashour sees in the Egyptian Revolution an opportunity for a better future, but it becomes painfully clear that the Brotherhood’s resulting power grab will bring about its own political complications.
It’s through Ashour’s eyes that we sense The Square’s sadness that the Egyptian Revolution failed—at least to date—in its goals. Noujaim’s strategy is to eschew a larger societal overview to emphasize how the ongoing revolution has weighed on her participants’ spirits. Those wondering how the Egyptian Revolution tied into the larger Arab Spring will be left wanting, but The Square’s intimacy more than compensates. Without overselling her points, Noujaim lets her individuals—unique but also representative of different Egyptian philosophies—symbolize the nation’s warring interests. This is most compellingly illustrated in the tenuous friendship between the mid-40s Ashour and a twentysomething idealist named Ahmed Hassan, whose dreams of a revolution that will unite all Egyptian factions smashes into the harsh reality that the Muslim Brotherhood (a group he detests) doesn’t share his views.
The Square is a roller coaster of different emotions, and Noujaim honors each twist in the track. The movie has great sympathy for its participants, and it’s unafraid to reveal the brutality of the Egyptian army that tries to continue Mubarak’s policy of martial law even after his ouster. (The film shows a few disturbing images of protesters’ occasional mortal wounds at the hands of the army, but The Square uses these judiciously, provoking anger at the humanitarian crimes being committed.) In the West, the scenes of peaceful, joyous protest at Tahrir Square were warmly greeted as hopeful signs of a new Middle East. The Square doesn’t throw cold water on those hopes as much as it meticulously demonstrates that systemic change does not come easily. That’s why you care so deeply about the people you see in this movie—it’s not that their quest is easy but that it’s so very hard.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Starring: Khalid Abdalla, Magdy Ashour, Ahmed Hassan
Release Date: Oct. 25, 2013