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'The Square': A cinematic masterpiece or a weak account of a struggling revolution?

Oscar-nominated and critically acclaimed 'The Square' draws varying opinions from Egyptians

Yasmine Zohdi, Wednesday 22 Jan 2014
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Still from Jehane Noujaim's 'The Square'
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Rarely has an Egyptian film generated such enthusiastic speculation or had as many breaths held as Jehane Noujaim’s The Square, which recently brought Egypt its very first Academy Award nomination. Such eager anticipation is not necessarily good for a movie, however, since it heightens expectations that are often quite difficult to meet.

The film has not been released in Egyptian movie theatres, and it remains unknown whether it ever will. It was part of the Panorama of the European Film’s sixth edition programme, but the scheduled screening in December 2013 was cancelled amid talk of military censorship.

Organisers of the Panorama later issued a statement claiming that the film would not be showing for ‘technical reasons’. Censorship authorities claim that the production company did not submit an official request for a commercial release of the film, while the filmmakers have not yet made any comments about the matter.

However, a copy of the film has been pirated and leaked online, taking the Egyptian internet-sphere by storm. Several venues around Cairo are holding screenings of the film, and debates concerning its content have been raging ceaselessly. 

The Square is definitely an ambitious project, chronicling more than two years of revolution and political upheaval in less than two hours. Before becoming an Oscar contender, it had already won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, as well as the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival.

After the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013, Noujaim altered the cut that had been screened at Sundance, giving the film an updated ending: the removal of Morsi as Muslim Brotherhood supporters set up camp in Rabaa Al-Adawiya.

The film, being a character-driven documentary, derives its value from the individuals featured in it. Noujaim and her crew had all met in Tahrir Square during the initial 18 days of the revolution, and it is at that stage that she chose her protagonist and the film’s main characters.

The film focuses on and is narrated by Ahmed Hassan, a charming, street-smart, energetic revolutionary with a modest background and an infectious smile. Hassan is friends with Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood taking part in the uprising who later finds himself caught in moral conflict.

The final character is Khalid Abdallah, an actor who is a descendent of two generations of political dissidents and who had been living in London, but came back to Egypt in the beginning of the revolution.

The film follows other characters as well, albeit with less screen time, including filmmaker Aida El Kashef, singer and songwriter Ramy Essam, human rights lawyer Ragia Omran and Pierre Sioufi, whose Tahrir Square apartment was a safe and welcoming refuge for revolutionaries on the cold winter nights they spent on the street.

ONE-DIMENSIONAL STORYTELLING

Although The Square covers the most significant events from 25 January 2011 to 3 July 2013, and despite the fact that its characters are diverse and more or less demonstrative of the different factions involved, it can hardly be considered a satisfying documentation of the Egyptian revolution in its entirety.

While watching the film, one cannot help but feel that certain parts of the storytelling are over-simplified, stripped to their barest abstract form in order to be more accessible to foreign audiences. Recurring clashes between revolutionaries and security forces become part of a monotonous loop, a flat ‘Good versus Evil’ narrative. Causes and consequences are not highlighted. Instead, the narrator offers generic sentences like "fighting corruption and injustice" and "protests against the military regime intensify", which are far from sufficient explanations, as police/army violence directly ensues.

It’s true that Egyptians who took to the streets were fighting corruption and injustice, and protests did intensify, and almost always faced harsh confrontations with the police or the army. However, the situation was always more complicated than that – there was always a reason, a very specific one, and it is actually in the details and the small stories that the revolution lies, at least to those who have been immersed in it for three years.

For instance, specific dates are never mentioned (only ‘Spring’, ‘Summer, ‘Fall’, ‘Winter’), and footage of separate events with different contexts, like the clashes at Mohamed Mahmoud street and the dispersal of the sit-in in front of the cabinet building that followed, are merged in one sequence. To someone who had been there, this might seem like an inappropriate lightness in dealing with the subject matter.

Since the film is a subjective, personal, emotional depiction of the revolution rather than a purely factual, detached political analysis, it could have done a better job to absorb intimate intricacies: how the smell of tear gas and sweet potatoes being sold on carts in Tahrir Square during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes would blend together until you couldn’t tell which was which, or how protesters would naïvely defy gravity by throwing stones at soldiers on top of the People’s Assembly building during the cabinet battle, even when we knew they’d probably end up falling back down on our heads. Each violent confrontation with the state on the street had its own feel, its own smell, its own magnetic force drawing people to Tahrir.

Noujaim has stressed several times that her film is a quest to capture the struggles of a group of young people and their personal relationships with each other and with Tahrir, and that it’s not intended to portray the post-revolutionary political process. However, the political process and the action on the streets were often entirely intertwined. For example, the main reason behind the cabinet sit-in was the appointment of Kamal El-Ganzouri, who had served for years under Mubarak, as prime minister, after more than forty young men had died on Mohamed Mahmoud Street. The omission of certain changes on the political level sometimes compromised the smooth flow of the film.

A FILM FOR FOREIGN AUDIENCES?

To someone who is not familiar with the revolution, or whose knowledge of it is restricted to news stories on TV and headlines in the papers, the film would most likely be impressive. A foreign viewer who had never found themselves in a remotely similar situation is more inclined to marvel at the courage of those young men and women braving bullets and tear gas on the street, risking their lives for a better country. However, for Egyptians who’ve been part of it all, it tells a story they’ve been living for years, and it tells it plainly. It tells it minus the minute particulars they are threatened to forget and are struggling to remember.

It is indeed noticeable that the film has garnered more favourable reviews abroad than it has in Egypt, where reality seems much more compelling and elaborate than the drama unfolding on the screen. Perhaps that inability to be as shaken by the film as most had expected to be, can be contributed in part to the general disenchantment currently spreading among so many Egyptian young people who had once been as full of fire as the characters in The Square, but can barely find any of that energy now.

WHAT MAKES IT SIGNIFICANT

That is not to say that The Square is not a moving film. It is. Egyptians of all ages weeping with joy when Mubarak stepped down, a young man sobbing with anguish over the coffin of a loved one after the 2011 Maspero massacre, Hassan’s voice, shaking with anger as he fights with a Brotherhood member: ‘You can take the Square and do whatever you want, the revolution is coming, no matter what." The film is filled with such powerful, emotionally-charged moments that are more often than not tear-jerkers.

The crew also does a wondrous job filming under extremely difficult circumstances – at times their very lives were in danger. Noujaim herself was arrested once, her camera confiscated and the material on it lost. In a recent interview, she revealed it had been footage of a ceasefire that had taken place during the Mohamed Mahmoud clashes. It was sunset, and sheikhs from Al Azhar had approached the police and reached an agreement with them to stop shooting - only for bullets to start flying again as the sheikhs prayed minutes afterwards.

Hassan proves to be a very clever choice as the film’s central character as well, not only because his social standing and educational background and the way he carries himself make him representative of the majority of Egyptian youth who took to the streets in protest, but also because he is naturally charismatic and easy to empathise with. Several of his thoughts throughout The Square, although driven by an irrepressible passion rather than any kind of political shrewdness, seem to be prophetic. At the end of the film, after the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood from power, he says he knows the army will run the country once again – and although we know it pains him, the smile is still on his face.

The Square is not the kind of documentary that would be illuminating to someone looking for a detailed account to help them understand the convoluted mess the country finds itself in today. Nor will it come as a revelation to an Egyptian who’s been part of the events. However, it does come off as great material to acquaint the world with the Egyptian revolution through the eyes of the hopeful, idealistic, resilient youth who started it and continue to fight for it.

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