Sundance Film Festival Audience Award-winner and Oscar Nominee for Best Documentary Feature in 2013, Jehane Noujaim’s The Square has an almost restlessly roaming camera eye, a brisk rhythm, and an immediacy that is powerfully engaging and affecting. Rather than dealing with abstractions, it immerses itself into significant segments of what is collectively called “the people” without sacrificing acuity. Of course, it is slanted: any documentary has that right. In fact, without a point of view, a documentary is useless fact--rather like knowing that a room has been held together by a thousand nails, without knowing the shape, texture, grain, and overall design of the room. In The Square, we know the subject and its witnesses’ points of view vividly. The film plunges us into center of social and political chaos in Tahrir Square, Egypt in January 2011, when millions of Egyptians converged on that area demanding democracy and the end to President Hosni Mubarak’s decades-long dictatorship. In the dark opening shot, a fairly panoramic one, lights go out all over the city, but the loss of electricity is the least of the populace’s problems. A solitary candle is enough to partially illuminate the face of 20-something Ahmed Hassan, a revolutionary idealist, who roams the square night and day, talking of its dignity and that of his cause. Mubarak appears on television, faking paternal affection and advice, but he fears mass revolt despite the brutal military force he exerts.
Ahmed is the chief human witness, but he is not the only one. The documentary makes effective use of other faces and voices: Khalid Abdalla, the English-accented film star (The Kite Runner, United 93, etc), son of a political activist once jailed in Egypt in the 1970s, now ensconced in England, from where he Skypes with his conscientious son; Ramy Essam, a popular singer, who is the musical voice of protest; Mona Ani, author and activist; and Magdy Ashour, a conflicted member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who learns that he has been betrayed and duped, like millions of others, by that fanatical extremist party. The preponderance of the evidence is supplied by these champions of democracy, though when the director elects to film their opponents (such as Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood presidential contender, or Generals Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi and Hamdy Bekheit), she allows them to expose their own virulence, hypocrisy, or mendacity by their own words and slogans.
There are excruciatingly graphic scenes of sadistic violence, torture, and death, heated mass demonstrations, passionate domestic and public arguments, and the camera (often hand-held) and always favouring close-ups or medium shots, seems to be restlessly probing. YouTube or home-made video, graffiti art (by Ammar Abo Bakr), popular song and poetry are all part of the documentary mass. Those are real bodies being blown apart, run over by tanks, permanently scarred by electro-torture; those are real corpses caught in livid detail in their stunned grimaces or frozen tableaux-mort. But these are simply grist to the mill of military dictatorship. What is far more interesting from a propagandistic or ideological point of view is the level of fervent argument. Everywhere the people argue their various perspectives on the struggle. And it is usually at a level far higher than that currently demonstrated by the one-man Rump of Demagoguery in the United States, whose fervid fans are demonstrably lacking in education, general knowledge, or a coherent worldview, and where the far Right wing (whose presidential candidates, without exception, run the gamut from Ignorance to Idiocy) shows its own extremist ideology against the very strain of Democracy it so hypocritically pretends to revere.
The Square is a film that shows that there is always a beating heart, a mind elevating conscience, and a soul quivering for justice in every country where truth, rather than mass media popularity, matters. The real square writes its people, and though there is a beautifully elegiac song to it over the final credits, the sad irony is that the square becomes, in effect, a circle--one that demonstrates yet again there is no closure once one dictatorship has been replaced by another in a country yearning and bleeding for a radiant conscience that will save it from the horrors of military or religious tyranny.