Published Sep 16, 2013In early 2011, following violent interrogations from the secret police and other long-standing political issues (corruption, lack of free elections and severe economic issues exacerbating the class divide), a mass protester uprising involving various socio-economic factions stood together in Egypt to overthrow the regime of Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak. The demonstration, though minimized in the mainstream media, resulted in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries but ultimately succeeded in its aim of forcing Mubarak to step down from his post.
As outlined with surprising clarity in Jehane Noujaim's exceedingly gritty and distressingly immersive documentary, The Square, this initial success wasn't the end of the fight.
Taking place over two years, primarily in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Noujaim's doc avoids much of the surrounding political speculation—Mubarak's life imprisonment for complicity in the murder of protesters and its subsequent overturn, for example—focusing instead on the action and the experiences of a handful of extremely active and vocal protesters. Ahmed Hassan, a progressive Muslim, is present most often, arguing that the Muslim Brotherhood, an organized political faction unto itself, merely hopped on an existing bandwagon, exploiting the opportunity to take control of the nation.
In June of 2012, when the State Election Commission announced that an Islamist, Mohammed Morsi, would be taking over the presidency, this assertion proved true. In the meantime, the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) had taken violent steps in enforcing a curfew on the residents, driving military vehicles into unarmed protesters and shooting live ammo into the crowded square.
Though the voices of a Brotherhood Muslim (Magdy Ashour), an ersatz celebrity (The Kite Runner's Khalid Abdalla) and even a spokesperson for the armed forces are included, ensuring some form of diversification amongst this adamant plea for democracy, the real story stems from the intensity of these peaceful protests repeatedly turning violent. The narrative takes the form of a fight, starting with an intense ire and compounding retaliations with horrific bloody results, only to step back, grieve and question whether or not this persistent fighting might be futile.
As such, we're engaged in a visceral capacity, forced into the middle of an anarchic situation, witnessing gunfire, gassings and mortal injuries before daylight breaks and everyone either grieves or argues about why such horrors need to occur. It's as draining as it is enraging, vacillating between solipsistic, futile debates and astounding acts of solidarity resulting in drastic political change.
That this footage even exists and Noujaim was able to capture everything so closely (getting arrested in the process) is astounding and nerve-wracking in itself. What's heightens this sense of astonishment is that this footage has been assembled in such a cohesive manner, being conscious of the emotional arc of an audience from all different educational and cultural backgrounds.
If there is a flaw in The Square, it's that the peaceful protest movement is championed unequivocally. While it had obvious benefit within the political context of Egypt, it's not something that's altogether beneficial in all social climates and can, at times, be less a representative of the voice of the people than it is a potentially dangerous and incendiary situation for those lacking in discernment that simply want to be included in something that might give their life, or identity, meaning. (Noujaim Films)