Let’s cut right to the chase – Jehane Noujaim’s epic, astonishing documentary The Square is easily one of the most complex, most nuanced, and frankly most important documentaries made about the ongoing political developments in Egypt. Heck, I’ll go further, it’s one of the finer historical documentaries I think that’s ever been made, period.
I have a little mantra that I say about what I feel makes a documentary truly engaging. I despise docs that play to pre-existing notions to sate sedate audiences, relying entirely on its affect by proverbially preaching to the converted. Even the most sophisticated of docs, particularly those that deal with recent events, sometimes lack any kind of multifaceted narrative, as the complexities of capturing a tale from many sides while remaining comprehensible and engaging is a hard thing to do.
It’s thus all the more cause to celebrate a film like The Square. The film chronicles the events that coalesced into the January 2011 demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that would eventually lead to the toppling of Mubarak as leader. As the events unfold, we’re introduced to a number of key demonstrators – strong willed student-aged activists, eloquent ex-pats who have flown home to join in, and, perhaps most intriguingly, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is consistently torn between his spiritual, political and personal obligations.
The events from 2011 to the present day are presented in rough chronological order, so we see these participants mature, becoming at various points disillusioned or once again invigorated as the process plays out. We get an inside view into the workings of a public outcry, we see first hand the response of the police, we can almost smell the sticky odour of the teargas.
Yet again, it must be emphasized, this is no one-sided apology for public unrest. We see the missteps, the hubris and anger at various stages. We even hear from the political and military leadership, again adding another colour to the film’s narrative. As a mural is painted on a wall as a device to tie the stories together, so too are the various colours and shades of this real-time history engaged with by the film.
One could look at the technical elements and applaud the film on that level – Noujaim and her editorial team make a wonderfully coherent film out of disparate elements. Ridiculous shooting conditions surely beset the filmmakers, yet from strictly a cinematic perspective there remain many scenes of stark beauty. The incorporation of elements from a myriad of sources never feels forced, and the whole thing plays out as an astonishingly well assembled whole.
Out of the sea of humanity that gathered over the months to call for change, the filmmakers manage through focusing on this small group to humanize the multitude. There are stories not told, to be sure – shocking tales about the systemic rapes, for example, are not within the scope of the work. Still, we do get a rich overview from an inside-the-lines perspective at the heart of the movement, from calls to action on social media through to the most recent events that continue to shape the nation.
It’s in this process of illuminating this story, of seeing history written in front of our eyes, that gives the film such startling power. Hundreds if not thousands of years of Egyptian autocratic rule is being challenged, the very heart of the most populous nation in the Middle East coming to terms with the first glimmers of self government. The events play out with a tacit sense of foreboding, and one can see explicitly as tiny decisions or grander political operations would co-opt any sense of real unity.
At its heart, this is the story of brothers and sisters who met and bonded in a square, yet in only a few years are finding their dreams of peaceful unity shattered by the ineffable forces of politics and religion. Yet still, there are glimmers of that continued passion, the connections still held onto despite a clear choice of succumbing to fears of inadequacy or futility.
With headlines up to this second detailing the ongoing fits and starts of Egypt’s revolution, the messages and articulations that The Square provides are as vital as ever. We can see through the various arteries of the narrative the continuing complexity of the situation, all leading to a Nile-like torrent that mixes blood, anger, hope and ambition. This is a film that will move you, will challenge you, and will make you think in entirely new ways. The Squareis, quite simply, a modern masterpiece.