Film Review: The Square

A powerful, sobering portrait not just of the last two years of the Tahrir Square protest movement, but of the painful wisdom that comes when ideals, and occasionally bodies, are crushed.

“We dreamed that one day all of Egypt would be like Tahrir Square,” says the idealistic young revolutionary Ahmed Hassan, in the rare moment when he’s not giving a speech or raising his fist in the street. He’s just one of the protestors in Jehane Noujaim’s incandescent documentary The Square, whose flaring beliefs seem made up equally of prophecy and naiveté. While the film can’t help but be impressed by the potency of their fight for democracy, it also doesn’t have to pretend that the odds aren’t stacked high against them. The massed rows of soldiers marching through the dark Cairo streets and the almost giggling nonchalance of the few army officers who Noujaim gets on camera (“You kids don’t know anything,” says one) make clear how this war will likely turn out.

As she showed in Control Room, her gushing portrait of Al Jazeera, Noujaim isn’t one for staying on the sidelines. In this instance, that doesn’t prove to be much of a problem, given the electric combination of revolutionary personalities she’s followed. There are about a half-dozen major characters here, including protest singer Ramy Essam and human-rights lawyer Ragia Omran. But the film is really focused on three men of highly different personalities.

Ahmed is a bright-eyed young idealist, demanding in often hoarse tones the complete abolition of all the ugly violence, torture, corruption, and smothering of dissent that the last three decades brought Egypt. When the film starts in early 2011, Ahmed is in Tahrir Square with the tens of thousands who cheer thunderously when Hosni Mubarak steps down from power. Two years later, in the aftermath of the July 2013 army coup, he’ll be straining to keep his spirits up.

Almost as initially elated as Ahmed is Khalid Abdalla, the Egyptian-born star of The Kite Runner and United 93, who spent much of his life outside the country and returned to join the movement. A superbly articulate interview, Khalid puts a more camera-friendly and urbane, but no less passionate, gloss on the movement’s goals.

Magdy Ashour is a quieter presence, a family man in the Muslim Brotherhood who was violently targeted for years by the regime (“You used to be afraid to dream the wrong dream”). Although a loyal party man, he disobeys orders to go to Tahrir and protest with all of the people, not just his own: secular activists, Muslims both moderate and conservative, and Christians.

Between these three, The Square expertly triangulates the movement’s elations, depressions and confusion in the time between Mubarak’s stepping down in February 2011 and Mohamed Morsi’s ouster in July 2013. Ahmed and Khalid are the louder ones, not understanding why the country should be any more accepting of the violent crackdowns that followed the army’s takeover and then the Brotherhood’s theocratic consolidation of power after winning the first elections. Magdy is caught in the middle, loving the freedom and energy of the Tahrir movement but unable to give up his dream of a more Islamist country. Some of the strongest, most tender moments in The Square come from Ahmed and Magdy’s heart-to-heart over what kind of Egypt they want, and Ahmed’s insistence that the army not be allowed to drive a wedge between the secular revolutionaries and Islamists.

Like many documentaries on political movements, The Square alternates between the mass and the intimate. But Noujami’s ability to intermingle the two is impressively seamless, even more so when considering that she went back to Egypt to film more footage after first screening it at Sundance in January 2013. The film is thick with dense collages of tear gas, gunfire, and seas of people leaping and shouting in unison. But it also cuts away to zoom in on a few of these people who would otherwise just be specks in a pointillist portrait. What Noujami has captured is not just a protest, but a diagnostic of the different emotional and political struggles which protestors like Khalid, Ahmed and Magdy are having in the street or on the phone because they don’t live in a country where those arguments can yet be honestly had at the ballot box.