Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Movie Review: The Square

The Square
Directed by:  Jehane Noujaim.

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square may be about events that have been widely covered in the past three years, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t offer fresh insight. It begins in early 2011, when young Egyptians of all types flooded Tahrir Square to protest the brutal regime of then President Hosni Mubarek – and continues right through all the protests that will happen there until the summer of 2013 – those against Mubarek, those against the military regime who took over when he left, and those against the Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi – who won an election and then gave himself more wide sweeping power than even Mubarek ever had. To a certain extent, the movie is one damned thing after another – as the same people get together to protest against brutal regimes who beat, kill and imprison them – celebrate briefly – and then reconvene when it turns out the old boss is the same as the new boss. Perhaps that sounds depressing – it certainly is frustrating – but the film, more than anything, really is a document of hope.

Nowhere is that hope felt more deeply than in the opening scenes – when everyone seems united by a common goal – getting rid of Mubarek. Noujaim and her cinematographers go right into Tahrir Square along with the protesters, who really do seem united. A few people begin to take over the narrative – Ahmed Hassan, an optimistic young man with an easy charm, natural camera presence and who is a natural speaker. Khalid Abdalla, an actor who some will recognize from The Kite Runner or United 93, who comes from a family of Egyptian intellectuals that have been living in exile for years. Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood – although not as extreme as some in his party. These are the three that the film returns to time again – along with a few others – and tells the still ongoing struggle of the Egyptian people who want a new Constitution and a democratic government. It seems like a simple demand – but it is anything but.

That may well be because the protesters don’t ever seem to be able to agree on what they really want. They are able to mobilize against the various regimes that they do not like, but are too disorganized to seize power in any way. They are basically used by those who are more politically savvy and powerful – the protesters get rid of the old boss, and someone else sees their chance and swoops in. They get rid of Mubarek – but is the military any better? They finally get the election they want, and are stuck voting between two candidates most of them don’t want. The new President gets in, and starts cracking down on religious minorities, and gives himself dictator like powers. And every time, we see the protesters head back to square to protest.

Noujaim’s strategy is to put the viewer inside that square during all the protests. Sometimes violence erupts, and we see disturbingly graphic scenes of men and women being beaten, shot, run over, tear gassed, arrested, etc. Sometimes, there seems to be moments of joy and hope – there are several scenes of Ramy Essam – a singer-songwriter who performs often in the square for the protesters. Always there is impassioned debate – often with Ahmed at the center of it all, forcefully making his case. He is undeniably the sympathetic center of the movie – and the film’s most hopeful character. No matter what happens, he keeps coming back. The most complex person is Magdy – who becomes conflicted when he sees everything the Muslim Brotherhood is doing – much of it, he doesn’t necessarily agree with, but he’s bound to comply.

In many ways, The Square is not over even when it ends. Already, Noujaim has premiered two different versions of the film – one at Sundance in 2013, and then when more protests broke out, she went back, shot more footage, re-edited and the new film debuted at TIFF last fall (it is this version which got nominated for an Oscar last week). Yes, in many ways, The Square is a despairing film. The so called Arab Spring started off with so much promise back in 2011 – and now, three years later, it is still pretty much chaos. But as the film makes clear – progress can often be slow. As long there is still protesters, I suppose there is still hope for the future.

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