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Review: Jehane's Noujaim's Egypt Documentary "The Square"

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, January 17 2014

Congregating in Tahrir Square in 2011 (Jonathan Rashad/Wikipedia)

In “The Square,” director Jehane Noujaim draws out the human element—passion, conflict, confusion, conviction, indecision, doubt—in the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, which is so often described by a sterile counting of protesters or casualties. Noujaim's camera brings the viewer into an inner circle of young revolutionaries, and through them we experience a roller coaster of anticipation and dashed hopes, of trust and subsequent betrayal.

The film follows three revolutionaries: Ahmed Hassan, Khalid Abdalla and Magdy Ashour. Quick-talking Ahmed has a baby face and a visceral investment in the revolution: when it suffers, he suffers, and when it bleeds, he bleeds (and he does bleed, on more than one occasion). Whereas Hassan is the voice of conviction in Tahrir Square, dignified Khalid Abdalla is the face the revolution presents to the outside world. As an attractive and well-spoken actor (he starred in “United 93” and “The Kite Runner”) Abdalla was a natural choice to liaise between Egypt and the West.

The most challenging character, if I may call him that, is Magdy Ashour. Older than both Hassan and Abdalla, he is both a revolutionary and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Under Hosni Mubarak's rule, the Muslim Brotherhood suffered repression and persecution. Ashour recounts tales of waking up in the middle of the night surrounded by secret police, and of torture at their hands. Hassan, Abdalla and the other revolutionaries in the film sympathize and take to the streets in part because of injustices like that. Then the Brotherhood makes some concessions to the police, and they leave the square and the protesters. Many Egyptians in the film blame the Brotherhood for betraying the revolutionaries in order to gain political power. Ashour himself is torn between his allegiances—between his revolutionary friends, and the dream of change, and the group that has sheltered and embraced him for decades.

The storytelling in “The Square” is done beautifully. Narration is read while a graffiti artist paints scenes from the revolution, an elegant way of showing the passage of time. It is also a self-aware film. The revolutionaries discuss the importance of documenting both their victories and their losses, as evidence for a trial, if necessary. Sometimes, instead of showing footage of the square, Noujaim films Abdalla uploading and watching the footage on YouTube.

Some of their evidence is very hard to watch. Noujaim does not shy away from the most horrifying images of reckless violence (careening tanks) and its consequences (rows of bodies and bloody, beaten skin). But it is such an important film that even sensitive viewers should watch and try to avert their eyes at the worst bits. It is a story that could not be gleaned from newspapers that coldly recount acts of violence and political coups.

“The Square,” a Netflix Original, was released on January 17 after being nominated for Best Documentary the day before, giving Netflix its first Oscar nomination. Translation: you can watch it tonight on a computer near you.