Reel Look: The Square

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the political uprising and tragic bloodshed of an African nation demanding a justified revolution, this review will cover the inspirational, immersive and intense film known as The Square (Al-Midan).  Directed by Jehane Noujaim (Control Room), this 2013 Egyptian-American documentary depicts the ongoing rollercoaster ride of tumultuous political affairs, deriving from its roots back in 2011 in Tehrir Square to the summer of 2013.  Casting its ballot of a budget at only $1.5 million, the unfortunate outcome was a return only slightly more than a tenth of that at the box office. However, the film did receive a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 86th Academy Awards. That may have been thanks to the five editors who worked on the film as well, not to mention the five “additional editors” and six assistant editors mentioned in the end credits, but who’s counting? However, did this documentary exceed in truly capturing the essence of a nation in one of its most dire eras? Let’s take a look.

The Revolution in Egypt has been a continuing political drama over the past two and a half years. For most people, the news will only provide a glimpse of one of the bloodiest political battles, an election and a million man march. The handful of characters we do meet at the start of the uprising revolution discuss covering their own footage with cameras, as the news will only show so much. These maneuvers and a number of YouTube videos are our main characters’ only windows of the outside world around them gone awry; ravenous for rightful restitution amidst streets slathered with rioters, tanks and tear gas. The characters we are introduced to are only a fraction of the tens of hundreds of thousands fighting for their voices to be heard in claiming their rights, including actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner) during the reign of the corrupt Muslim Brotherhood and the leering presence of the threatening Revolutionary.

At the beginning of the film, we witness the deposal of the fourth president, Hosni Mubarak, after his nearly two-decade long term.  Now, political unrest has arisen and the people demand a new leader. When President Mohamed Morsi wins the election as the fifth president of Egypt, his abrupt term is halted after he grants himself unlimited powers on the pretext that he will “protect” the nation from the Mubarak-era power structure. He also gives himself the power to legislate without judicial oversight or review of his acts. In late November, he issues an Islamist-backed draft constitution and calls for a referendum, an act that his opponents call an “Islamist coup”. These issues, along with complaints of prosecutions of journalists and attacks on nonviolent demonstrators, brings hundreds of thousands of protesters to the streets in the 2012 Egyptian protests.  It is these actions that erupt the nation into frenzy, with protesters by the millions calling for the resignation of Morsi. He is later tried for charges of incitement of murder and violence, along with espionage. As of now, the nation is hopefully awaiting a new leader who will indefinitely bring about peace and rest once again to the nation of Egypt.

The Square indeed does this daring documentary justice in capturing the raw, uncut footage and bringing it to vivid life not only as a picture of grueling chaos but also as an art form. Like the cuts to the mural of the wall in the film being painted every now and then, so too are the voices of the people in Tehrir Square in all of their varying colors. Many voices, one plea. Many colors, one portrait. Together the people forget their differences and stand as one by the thousands upon thousands to form their own “wall” that stands against the powers polluting their precious homeland.  No matter how many “bricks” are lost from their wall, the people are all the stronger in their fight. The shots of a man’s stretched, distorted face upon it being run over from a panzer or a young man assassinated for attending the protest without informing his parents first are daunting and grotesque, but they emphasize the desperation of a people seeking freedom. Even one of our main characters, Ahmed Hassan, gets a gash in his head from some rocks thrown at him. Some up-close shots in the film show the paint running in the heat down the wall, paralleling the people in the street sacrificing their blood for a dream they so desperately believe in. With each stroke of a brush, they too are painting the way on a path toward a democratic society and a brighter future.  Like the mural, though unfinished, the revolution is a process, and getting there will be a long journey.

Astonishingly intimate, courageous, complex and grippingly relentless, Noujaim succeeds in risking a few years of her life to chronicle a giant mark in world history that is shown as deeply upsetting as it is yet ultimately hopeful to the viewer amidst an ever-shifting political culture. The two-year look at history in less than two hours is hard to digest at first but satisfactorily sums up a truly complicated and twisted predicament that one can only applaud afterward. Eight and a half squares out of ten.