Nominated last week for an Oscar for Best Documentary, The Square (El Midan) skillfully captures the cacophonous state of Egypt’s upheaval. Filmed by Jehane Noujaim, creator of the 2004 documentary Control Room, The Square chronicles the popular protests in Egypt from 2011 to 2013.
After doing the festival rounds last year, the film was released to a wide international audience on Netflix on January 17, 2014—a few days after Egypt’s vote in a referendum on the state’s constitution. It was the third such vote in as many years and within weeks of the three-year anniversary of the January 25 uprisings. Noujaim reportedly had to re-edit the film numerous times as Egypt’s murky political future continued, and indeed continues, to shift.
The Square follows a group of revolutionaries from a patchwork of Egyptian society. One, Ahmed Hassan, from Cairo’s working-class neighborhood of Shobra, epitomizes Egypt’s large population of able-yet-underemployed youth. He is forced to support himself through odd jobs, despite his education. Having worked since he was eight years old, he paid his school fees by selling lemons on the street.
In Hassan, Noujaim has found an impassioned narrator who takes viewers through a gamut of emotions—elation, rage, mourning and disillusionment. On January 25, 2011, Hassan joined the masses filled with anticipation after growing up in an Egypt where, he tells the viewer, “there was no hope for a better future.” During the initial eighteen days in Tahrir Square, he reminisces: “We were all present; we were one hand.”
A second man is British-raised Khalid Abdullah, who comes from three generations of exiles fighting corruption and oppression in Egypt. In the film, he quickly becomes an articulate spokesman for the uprisings. There is also Magdy Ashour, a mild-mannered father of four and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. He has spent the majority of his life facing periodical imprisonment and torture at the hands of the regime of former president Hosni Mubarak—a common practice in the cat-and-mouse relationship between the Brotherhood and Egypt’s various ruling parties.
Supporting characters include Aida El-Kashef, a filmmaker and activist who collaborated with Noujaim on her 2007 film Shayfeen.com: We’re watching you. There is also a shaggy intellectual named Pierre Sioufi, as well as Ramy Essam, a stalwart of the Tahrir protests. He was the musician who turned slogans into rallying songs but suffered severe beatings, torture by electric shock, and imprisonment during forcible clearings of the square. Human rights lawyer Ragia Omran appears during some of the film’s darkest moments, when the army attempts to dissuade families from procuring the autopsy reports of slain relatives in order to cover up deaths at the hands of the army.
The film also shows moments of triumph, such as when people found themselves in Tahrir Square standing side-by-side with those of different classes, religions and affiliations, all facing the same threats: the secret police, the beatings and the verbal abuse. The announcement of Mubarak’s ouster is shown being met with elation, hysteria and disbelief.
Ensuing scenes are more sobering, and bring a sense of impending doom as the viewer calculates what will come after the short-lived utopia of Tahrir has disintegrated. This is manifested in shots that capture the raw, heart-stopping grief of bereaved parents over the death of their son at the hands of the army. There is also rage as rocks are thrown at police shields, and more horror as the camera pans over a pile of corpses following footage of rampant attacks by army tanks on crowds. The camera pausing briefly on the ghoulish, open-eyed face of a man whose skull has been crushed by the tires of a tank. “It was a war, not a revolution,” says Hassan.
As The Square progresses, internal splits and schisms continue to develop, and this is reflected in the development of the friendship between Hassan and Magdy. Politically opposed by default, the two men form a fast bond through their mutual desire for change, but the course of the uprisings and growing party tensions cause them to eventually drift apart.
“I want to come and stand with you because this revolution was for a principal, not for blood, and what I have been worried about is going to start happening, that we are going to start killing one another,” says Hassan before the two men go their separate ways.
The narrative of their relationship serves as a poignant plot line, and also makes the important point that Egypt’s uprisings cannot be analyzed through party alliances and politics alone. These human connections are juxtaposed with interviews with majors and generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Those army leaders smugly derail questions with their own versions of events, denying that live ammunition was used or that tanks were rammed into the crowds or that imprisonment and torture happened, while also dismissing the integrity of those protesting.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the documentary is what happens once the credits roll and the current state of affairs is revealed.
In a recent radio segment, Egyptian journalist and blogger Sarah Carr, who describes present-day Egypt as a “situation crawling with corruption and abuse,” likens the contemporary political predicament to a state of “loop-de-loops” circling a power drain but ultimately controlled by the very hands of those in power.
Despite the unavoidable political debates, Noujaim is deliberate in her focus on Tahrir Square. The purpose of the documentary is not to explain the ever-complicated web of regime tensions, political alliances, civil strife and social schisms, but to make visible the people who continue to strive for change.
One of the strongest impressions one gets from watching The Square is the extent to which Egypt continues to grapple with the daunting task of reconciling the popular power realized by the uprisings and harnessing that power to achieve a better future. If the country’s current state is any indication, the prospect of change and true revolution remain elusive. As one man puts it in the The Square: “We’re like someone who did really well in an exam, then forgot to write their name on the exam, so you have no idea who it belongs to.”
It is this reality that infuses the triumphant moments of The Square with hope, but also renders them the most heartbreaking.