THE PEOPLE DEMAND THE DOWNFALL OF THE REGIME.
Jehane Noujaim is an internationally renowned documentary filmmaker who years ago formed a professional relationship with D.A. Pennebaker and made Startup.com (2001), a film about the late 1990s Internet bubble. Her father is Egyptian and part of her childhood was spent in Cairo. Eventually, she moved to Boston, but it’s obvious that Noujaim still has heartfelt ties to the Egyptian capital. This documentary takes us to the drama of the Arab Spring and the Tahrir Square in a unique way.
It almost seemed like it would last forever. The Muslim world had a leadership that was largely divided into either strongmen (like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein) or priests (Iran’s mullahs). Either way the people would suffer, but there was a stability to this misery. When the Arab Spring came in 2011, an entire world saw Arab nation after Arab nation rise up against their autocratic leaders and throw the bums out, starting with Tunisia. When the democratic fire spread to Egypt, a long struggle began with mass demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square against President Hosni Mubarak who responded with violence and denunciations of the protestors.
Over the course of two years, Egypt was in constant turmoil, resulting in the resignation of Mubarak (after 30 years in power), presidential elections leading to Muslim Brotherhood figure Mohamed Morsi’s victory, his subsequent attempt to grab more power by changing the constitution, and finally the military coup d’état in 2013 that removed Morsi from power.
An overhanging cloud
Throughout these events is the overhanging cloud of the (often conflicting) roles religion and the military play in Egypt, brilliantly illustrated in the film in various ways. The military is represented by a man who refuses to see how the armed forces can be responsible for shootings and torture that was carried out during the revolution. There is also a man, Magdy Ashour, who is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and believes that Islam should play a vital role in the new society that will come after the Arab Spring. He frequently clashes ideologically with Ahmed Hassan, an activist who wants to see everybody working together to create a free, liberal Egypt; he is suspicious of the Brotherhood’s agenda, and we see examples in the film of how they attempt to dominate the protests.
Ahmed is the heart and soul of the film, and it’s torture watching him grow increasingly tired as his struggle turns not only fruitless but dangerous at times. The filmmakers also craft a vivid, emotional portrait of Magdy who clings to his faith but becomes disillusioned with the Brotherhood. It’s a motley gang that Noujaim is depicting; there’s also Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor who was in United 93 and The Kite Runner, and became very involved in the revolution. Most of us only read about the Arab Spring, and possibly watched news footage on TV, but this film takes us in a uniquely intimate way to the streets where it’s happening; the cameras are there among the protestors covering the joy, creativity, political discussions and bloody confrontations. It’s messy, but very emotional and highly charged.
It’s fascinating to watch these people, who differ in many ways in terms of background and political opinions, discuss the revolution and future of Egypt. At one point, Ahmed says that the lack of a revolutionary leader is the reason why the Brotherhood and the military dominate. But in the end, he doesn’t seem to believe in the concept of one leader.
It’s January 2015 and the story is far from over. Sooner or later, Jehane Noujaim should make a sequel.
The Square 2013-U.S.-Egypt. 103 min. Color. Produced by Karim Amer, Jehane Noujaim. Directed by Jehane Noujaim.
Trivia: Egyptian title: Al midan.
Last word: “[Karim Amer] was doing a couple interesting things. I was [in Tahrir Square] with my camera. Karim was setting up, with his cousin, the third stage in the square. There were two stages already set up, one by the [Muslim] Brotherhood and one by the sort of, lefties, and Karim wanted to set up a stage with his cousin that was for anybody that wanted to speak regardless of political background. I thought, ‘This is a fascinating character to follow,’ somebody who the West can relate to because he grew up in Miami, and somebody who is very connected. So I followed him for about a week or two, when he said, ‘I don’t know if I should be a character in this movie, but you definitely need a producer to figure stuff out.’ So he then became the producer of the film and this is how the entire team came together, which was quite an awesome process.” (Noujaim, Interview Magazine)