Jehane Noujaim’s latest documentary, The Square, is an agonizing film to watch—which is, paradoxically, a mark of its success. Whether unfamiliar with the events of the so-called 2011 “Arab Spring” or intimately involved in the uprisings, viewers will find the documentary both difficult to turn away from and hard to ignore. The Oscar shortlisted film takes its title from Tahrir Square, the large open traffic circle in Cairo that played a central role in Egypt’s January 25th revolution, and, indeed, in the aftermath of the eighteen-day demonstrations that toppled Hosni Mubarak – one of the world’s longest reigning “presidents.”
Widely regarded as the center of the Arab world, Egypt has often served as a barometer for the rest of the Middle East and North Africa, from cultural affairs to trends in religiosity and politics. Cairo, the nation’s overcrowded and insomniac capital, is, in turn, seen as Egypt’s pulsing center, with the now-iconic Tahrir Square viewed as a microcosm of the state’s political, economic, and administrative life.
In her lengthy documentary, Noujaim, director of the 2004 documentary, Control Room, looks at the ramifications of the January 25th revolution. She has described The Square as “character-driven,” and, indeed, the film tells the stories of several Egyptian activists, with vastly divergent backgrounds, and traces the complexities of their lives and depth of their interconnection vis a vis Tahrir Square. Compellingly, Tahrir itself is a central figure in the narrative, invested with a personality all its own.
The Square succeeds on multiple levels. Noujaim’s stylistic choices, in conjunction with the film’s cinematography, engaging characters, and deft editing, captivate viewers and forge a sense of participation in a drawn-out, exhausting, exhilarating, and often heart-breaking struggle. Although the filmmakers initially planned to document the lives of multiple people who had participated in the revolution, four central characters were ultimately selected to guide the narrative in its final cut. Among these protagonists, the relationship between a young, left-leaning revolutionary and a middle-aged, Muslim Brotherhood member offers viewers a mostly hopeful view of Egypt’s political future.
But, in the end, the film leaves you wondering whether reconciliation in Egypt is possible these days beyond the euphoria created by the short-lived Republic of Tahrir. Although The Square is not inherently moralizing, it nonetheless projects a certain against-all-odds optimism, a reflection of the hopes held by many for the country, at home and abroad. The documentary’s chronology, editing, and length further contribute to this delicate rendering of guarded hopefulness.
In the first fifteen minutes of the film, which capture the initial toppling of Hosni Mubarak, anyone familiar with Egypt will sit rapt, reliving the transitory euphoria of those eighteen days—and agonizing over the aftermath. The film goes on to slowly relate developments over the ensuing transitional phase, palpably translating the exhaustion of political commitments as well as the dedication required to continue fighting. It abruptly ends with the demonstrations that led to the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood candidate, who was removed from power only one year after assuming office, on July 3, 2013. The implication of this finale appears to be that a second revolution is afoot, that hope has returned to Egypt.
The Arab uprising have brought simmering tensions to the surface throughout the Middle East and North Africa, where countless countries succumbed to wave after wave of galvanizing hope, transitory euphoria, and – often – crushing despair. Some mass social protest movements culminated in revolutions that toppled sitting leaders and underlying political system. Others resulted in protests quickly quashed by internal security services, or foreign-imported militaries.
In Egypt, politics these days – indeed, since the January 25th revolution – feels like Groundhog’s Day. The Egyptian state has swung from authoritarianism to military dictatorship to civilian government and back to military dictatorship. Each of these systems has proved problematic; and none of them have enjoyed substantial support from the population. The legitimacy of Egypt’s current government remains, much like the shifting symbolism in Tahrir, intensely contested. Like Egyptian politics, The Square leaves viewers with a nagging feeling that the aftershocks of the revolution are certain to continue.
At roughly 100 minutes in length, filmed in pieces since the onset of the January 2011 demonstrations, it is no surprise that the documentary has already been outpaced by rapidly shifting changes on the ground. Viewers are left wondering about the fate of characters from across the Egyptian ideological spectrum – but then again, is this not a reflection of a revolution’s aftermath in any context? In the end, The Square deftly navigates the fraught terrain faced by revolutionaries in any locale, a near-constant, adrenaline-fueled tension between the twin poles of cynicism and committed hope.
The Square begins streaming on Netflix on January 17. For upcoming screenings in the United States, please visit the film’s website.