The Square is a powerhouse of a film that plunges you smack into the middle of a people's rebellion – Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011, where the Arab Spring sprang to rambunctious life. Jehane Noujaim's audacious filmmaking dives headlong into the emotions, the debates, the daring occupations of public space and the bloody repercussions that toppled the 30-year rule of the US-backed Egyptian strongman, Hosni Mubarak. The Square delivers 104 minutes of hope, heroism and heartbreak. The Square has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, opens January 17 at SF's Roxie Theater.
"We race towards the bullets because we love life and we go into prison because we love freedom."
—From a letter written by an imprisoned Egyptian freedom fighter
Imagine it's 1776: the Sons of Liberty are planning the Boston Tea Party, and everyone's carrying a Smartphone in their leather pants. And Tom Paine and Betsy Ross show up with camcorders. Paul Revere wears a hat-cam for his midnight gallop thorough Boston. Shaky videos of George Washington crossing the Delaware are soon showing up on YouTube. Well, none of that happened but—thanks to technology and some brave filmmakers—it's a different story with the people's revolution in Egypt.
The Square is a powerhouse of a film that plunges you smack into the middle of a people's rebellion – Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011, where the Arab Spring sprang to rambunctious life. Jehane Noujaim's audacious filmmaking dives headlong into the emotions, the debates, the daring occupations of public space and the bloody repercussions that toppled the 30-year rule of the US-backed Egyptian strongman, Hosni Mubarak. The Square delivers 104 minutes of hope, heroism and heartbreak.
Despite the initial jubilation following Mubarak's departure, the intervening years have not brought a "Hollywood ending" to Egypt's story. The election that brought the Muslim Brotherhood to power started out looking like a victory for popular rebellion but it was soon betrayed by a grab for power on the part of President Mohammed Morsi that reignited the fires of public anger while, at the same time, splitting the unified front that had driven Mubarak from power.
After winning awards at the Sundance and Toronto Film Festivals, Noujaim has continued to return to Cairo to pursue recording the story of a revolution that is still a work-in-progress.
This kind of filmmaking is not for the faint-of-heart. Noujaim and her film crew were often in the thick of the street violence and the cameras record shocking sights and sounds as clubs, stones and bullets fly.
There is astounding beauty and bravery on display in The Square. But, be forewarned: there also are scenes of brutality that will likely haunt viewers long after the film has ended. There is the lacerated back of Ramy Essam, a popular protest singer who is dragged off by police and tortured after an early conflict. There is the upraised face of a young woman with her back jammed against a wall, weeping as she clutches the dead hand of a young man (brother? boyfriend? husband?) whose body, crushed by a tank, lies crumpled on the ground.
The Square follows five remarkable participants. Ahmed Hassan is a young street fighter with a gift for fiery rhetoric and a seeming disregard for personal danger. Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor who starred in The Kite Runner, abandoned the security of a career in London to join the people in the streets of Cairo. Aida El Kashef is a young filmmaker who carries her camera into combat and shares her footage in outdoor screenings. Ragia Omran is a frontline human rights lawyer whose daring makes her a target of the all-powerful Military Council. And, finally, Magdy Ashour, a father of four and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Magdy's story is especially compelling as he attempts to straddle two worlds—on one hand, he is expected to follow the dictates of the Brotherhood; on the other hand, he is driven to follow the dictates of his conscience which allies him with the young people in the street who are driven by dreams of justice rather than religious sectarianism.
The Square is filled with a dazzling amalgam of images that look like they were shot by a crack team of Hollywood cinematographers. In one scene, Ahmed has returned from a street confrontation that turned especially ugly. He is bathed in blue light. He is nearly motionless as he repeats what he saw. He looks like a made cut from ice. And he looks like he's about to shatter.
The Square hits US screens at a propitious time. Egyptians have just spent two days voting on a referendum for a new constitution to guarantee peace and protect the rights of men and women alike. But it is clearly understood that the referendum is a mechanism to ensure the power of the ruling triad—the military, the judiciary and the police. The referendum is also seen as a steppingstone designed to install General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as the next "elected" ruler of the nation.
The Square is a rare and powerful must-see film experience. It's well worth a trip to San Francisco (the independent Roxie Theater is located in the Mission, just three blocks from the 16th Street BART Station). The Square will also be available on Netflix beginning Friday, January 17.