I can't pinpoint exactly when it happened, but I have a very low threshold for feature film documentaries. This doesn't mean I don't like them, but if you are gonna come you gotta come correct. In an age where you can probably get your finger-pointing message out to more people with a well-cut short uploaded to YouTube, you better not be dragging my butt into a theater for something that is ultimately a long, drawn-out 60 Minutes segment.
The Square, directed by Jehane Noujaim, whose previous credits include the outstanding Control Room, seems to have heard my complaints. Her direct cinema approach to the current situation in Egypt is, for lack of a better term, cinematic, but also transcends the specificity of its subject. The Square is an eyes-on-the-ground experience, and when I say current I mean current. The print which debuted at this year's Sundance Film Festival was four days old and I have no doubt that when The Square emerges in its final form there will be new scenes added.
So here's the deal: we all remember when a fruit vendor in Tunisia killed himself in protest and it led to civil unrest throughout the Arab world. In Egypt the demonstrations were so powerful, and cut across so many factions, that Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down after 30 years of unchallenged rule. (If you really don't remember this, it was in early 2011.)
It was a big win for democracy and when the rest of the world moved on to the next story (I think we were all jonesing for Cowboys & Aliens spoilers), Egypt's disquiet was just getting started. The Square is a rat-at-tat-tat of remarkable sequences that tell the story most common sense people could have predicted - cut off the head of the snake and a new one grows back.
The Square focuses on a number of secular progressives who, the film will have you believe, were the bedrock of the initial movement. Indeed, their HQ (which is implied to be home to a computer savvy, Jerry Garcia-looking man) overlooks Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests and the spot which lends its name to the title of the film.
This small group is intensely media savvy, and their ranks include actor Khalid Abdalla (who speaks perfect Oxbridge English and seems to have Anderson Cooper on speed dial) and a folk singer. They run and gun handheld video footage, spiff 'em up on Final Cut Pro and upload to YouTube with burned-in English subtitles for maximum dispersal. Unfortunately, there is more than enough going on around them to shoot.
After Mubarak stepped down, power ceded to his army - the same army that stood by his side for decades. While on paper they stand united with the revolutionary cause, they soon start to chip away at the spirit of freedom that permeated the days of protest.
The demonstrations get bloody, and the army uses divide and conquer tactics. A minority group of Coptic Christians are attacked, yet official autopsies are denied for the victims' families. ("Oh, those aren't army bullets," a high ranking officer says after glancing at a photo.)
In time, the Generals are forced to hold elections, and with a potential power vacuum, the long existent underground political faction, the Muslim Brotherhood, sees this as a time to strike.
There are journalists well more equipped than I to give you the straight dope on the Muslim Brotherhood, but from the POV of The Square they are opportunists at best and thugs at worst. Furthermore, their reactionary religious code is anathema to the initial liberal tone of the Tahrir Square protests. The implication is that the Muslim Brotherhood told our subjects, "hey, thanks for doing all the hard work, we'll take it from here."
Of course, they're not so quick to lie down, and the protests and direct action continues as I write this.
From a moviegoing point of view, Noujaim makes some exciting choices. There's next to no backstory about the lives of the main activists; it's all business. The film washes over you with scene after scene of arguing, strategy and conflict down on the Square. Unless you've been locked into Al Jazeera or read Middle Eastern papers morning, noon and night you are not going to catch all the references. From an artistic point of view it doesn't matter. It's like sitting in on a great conversation even if you don't have a full frame of reference.
All of the characters are fascinating in their own way, but best is Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood caught between his party's marching orders and his personal dedication to the revolution. There is certainly enough in this film for those who don't have a whit of knowledge concerning international affairs. The Square works as a Sisyphusian tale about idealists devoting their lives to bringing about change. The process is frustrating, dangerous and, we can only hope, ultimately triumphant.