The camera shows a dark room, lit only by the flickering of a single candle. A small group of friends sit together, huddled around the light. “This is normal”, says one of them, “the lights are out all over Egypt”. As the camera rolls on, it soon becomes clear that the power cut is not what really bothers him; “Electricity is the least of our problems.”
Documentary maker Jehane Noujaim’s latest film The Square (“Al Midan”) captures the struggles of a group of friends as they become involved in the 2011 Egyptian revolution. While the film shows the historical developments of the uprising – the protests, the deposal of Mubarak, the subsequent election of Mohammed Morsi as President, and finally his removal by the army – The Square is not simply a historical documentary. It certainly provides a powerful visual portrait of the historical events, but it is the focus on the people who created those events that makes this film special.
"Noujaim paints a rather optimistic picture of the spirit of the revolutionaries"The Square’s protagonists are Ahmed, Magdy and Khalid, three revolutionaries who meet up in Tahrir Square. They are three very different characters. Ahmed Hassan is a well-spoken young poet who paid for his own tuition selling lemons from the age of 5. Magdy Ashour is both a committed revolutionary and a middle-aged member of the Muslim Brotherhood with a wife and children. Khalid Abdallah is a middle class British actor, who has returned to his parents’ homeland to join the Egyptian struggle, and ultimately becomes a regular commentator for Western media. What unites these seemingly disparate characters is their shared journey and their passion for the revolution.
The film beautifully captures the momentum which propelled the revolution forward. The build-up of tension, the ever growing crowds in the Square, those heady first days when social divisions were bridged, and men and women marched together, united in their revolutionary spirit. It shows the magical moment of Mubarak’s removal, the electricity that pervaded the air that night in Tahrir, the anticipation, and finally the overwhelming roar of elation that rolled like a crashing wave across the Square when the news broke.
What makes The Square different from all the other documentaries about Tahrir and the Arab Spring is the fact that Noujaim is the first to go beyond the hope and success of those first months. The original cut of the film ended with the June 2012 election that put President Morsi in power, but the latest version goes even beyond that and shows the escalation of violence that erupted during Morsi’s presidency, and his ultimate overthrow by the army in August 2013.
While new events were playing out, Noujaim kept the camera rolling. As the stages of the demonstrations unfold, we see the inevitable cracks appearing in the former revolutionary unity. The film captures how things are starting to fall apart, how the military turns against the people, the Muslim Brotherhood co-opts the revolution for political gain, and violence breaks out. The discussions in the Square become more heated, people start to lose faith and friends become opponents. In his increasingly passionate discussions with Ahmed we see Magdy starting to have doubts, torn between his loyalty to the Brotherhood and his revolutionary conscience. “They (the MB) use their presence in the Square as a negotiating tool,” he observes, “You know I think it is wrong.”
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To those very familiar with all the events that occurred during those three revolutionary years in Cairo, there will inevitably be things missing. If the film has a weakness, it’s in those stories it doesn’t have time to tell. It does not give much of a background to the situation and events in Egypt leading up to – and ultimately causing – the uprising, which would have given viewers a better understanding of the revolution in its historical context. Also, Noujaim does not mention the increased tensions between Muslims and Copts, and how sectarian strife plays into the hands of those in power. Neither does she touch on the problem of the omnipresent sexual harassment that made being in Tahrir very dangerous not only for Egyptian women, but also for foreign female reporters.
Most importantly, though, Noujaim paints a rather optimistic picture of the spirit of the revolutionaries. The unbounded energy and relentless optimism we see in Ahmed and his friend, the journalist Aida Kashef belies the pervasive sense of demoralization and exhaustion that many revolutionaries started to feel after the initial successes of the first months.
The Square is at times hard to watch, with scene after scene of harrowing images of people getting shot and tanks running over civilians. It shows the tenacity of old powers, the ruthlessness of political opportunism and its lack of scruples, and it shows that sometimes even hard work and noble intentions are not enough to bring about lasting change.
While these things could very easily make the viewer feel exhausted and cynical, it is exactly the perseverance, the optimism and the boundless energy of people like Ahmed that make you leave the cinema not just with a heavy heart, but also with a tiny flicker of hope that – as long as that energy is still there – not all is lost.
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