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PARK CITY — Fulfilling the highest calling of documentary films, Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (Al Midan) captures the immediacy and intensity of the Egyptian revolution from the inside as it’s happening. A daring and provocative piece of work, this eye-opening film should be a conversation starter on a left-leaning cable outlet.
Egypt-born and U.S.-educated Noujaim, who directed the 2001 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner Startup.com, managed to be in the right place at the right time in January 2011 when hundreds of thousands of young people took over Cairo’s Tahrir Square and forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of a repressive military regime. But this was just the beginning of an ongoing process. Noujaim finished her film four days before its screening at Sundance as events in Egypt and the fate of the revolution were still playing out.
She wisely chose to focus on a handful of disparate characters united by their revolutionary zeal. By the end they are almost like well-drawn characters in a feature film, and they offer the viewer a way into the chaos at ground zero. Obviously combining footage from many sources, Noujaim, her cinematographer Muhammad Hamdy and especially her team of editors, have stitched together an intimate encounter with destiny that looks much like footage from the U.S. in the ’60s.
After Mubarak’s ouster, the military takes over and the demonstrators return to the Square, which has become a symbolic piece of land where they pitch tents and declare celebrate their freedom. Time and time again they are brutally dispersed by the army and police but return. After a group of soldiers defects to join the revolution, the attacks on the demonstrators are so chilling and the scenes so vivid, it almost seems dangerous to watch. Rami Essam, one of the main characters and the troubadour of the revolution who sings protest songs to the crowd, is arrested and beaten; afterward, he shows his scars.
The actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner), a prominent figure in the demonstrations who often is interviewed by Western news outlets, is another of Noujaim’s main characters. Coming from a family of activists, Abdalla clearly has given his heart and soul to the revolution, and at one point he provides a space a few flights above the street from which activists can film the beatings taking place below.
What makes these demonstrations different from what happened in America almost 50 years ago is that, to paraphrase Gil-Scott Heron, this revolution was televised — streamed on YouTube, posted on Facebook — and sent around the world. It’s thrilling to see how some of the savvy demonstrators exploit new media to get their message out.
As the stages of the demonstrations unfold, there are inevitable cracks in the unity. The Muslim Brotherhood calls for a greater role in the government and creates unanswerable questions about the role of religion in the Egyptian government. We see this conflict through the eyes of the bearded Muslim Magdy Ashour, a committed revolutionary torn by his ties to the Brotherhood yet disturbed by their allegiances and the alleged violence they might be a part of. Tempers and passion run high.
As Noujaim shows, achieving your goals, and even agreeing what those goals are, is complex in a revolution, but the younger demonstrators she follows — the tireless Ahmed Hassan and the journalist Aida Kashef — see things purely with the idealism and energy of youth.
There is no mistaking where Noujaim’s sympathy lies; this is a partisan documentary, and no apologies offered or necessary. She does interview some government and military figures, who come off as snide and disreputable. As the demonstrators disperse and return for the next chapter, there is some unavoidable repetition in the action. The film does build momentum but could be even more powerful with just a bit of trimming. There is, of course, no conclusion, other than that the realization that demonstrators must now become more skilled in politics.
The revolution is a work in progress, and judging by her commitment, Noujaim will be there filming it. But for now, she has provided a timeless historical document of what it means when people come together for a just cause.
Production Companies: Roast Beef Productions
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Producer: Karim Amer
Executive producers: Mike Lerner, Geralyn Dreyfous, Maxyne Franklin
Director of photography: Muhammad Hamdy
Editors: Stefan Ronowicz, Mohammed El Manisterly, Christopher de la Torre, Pierre Haberer
Sales: Cinetic Media
No rating, 95 minutes
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