The 16th Encounters South African International Documentary Festival opened on Wednesday with The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary about the Egyptian Revolution. The film (available in the US on Netflix) holds the title of being the first Egyptian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. It is a filmic triumph and an apt portrayal of our times, both in content and form. Noujaim, who directed 2004’s Control Room about broadcast network Al Jazeera, shot the film on Canon 5Ds (for techie reasons, these cameras regarded as revolutionary by indie filmmakers) and this gives the documentary a distinctly cinematic feel. More importantly, The Square brings to light the complexities of the Egyptian revolution by situating the viewer right in the middle of the protests, the idealism, and the chaos. With Egypt’s recent elections resulting in the questionable landslide victory of former army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the film remains a timely reminder of the power and limitations of spontaneous social movements in shaping history.
Werner Herzog once said that the most important aspect of making a documentary was “casting.” Director Noujaim skillfully assembles a diverse cast that allows us to experience the uprising through their eyes, starting with the young revolutionary Ahmed Hassan. Ahmed is instantly likeable; his idealistic exuberance almost literally leaps off the screen. He starts the film by explaining public life under Mubarak as characterized by a lack of dignity, and tells his personal story of having to work from age 8 to pay for his school tuition, only to find that he is unable to find work as an adult. He then introduces us via voice over to Khalid Abdalla, an actor (The Kite Runner) turned revolutionary spokesman, Ramy Assam known as “the singer of the revolution,” and a bearded Islamist named Madgy Ashour, a soft-hearted individual from the Muslim Brotherhood. The energy in the opening scenes is electric; change feels palpable, inevitable. Indeed, as we know, Mubarak steps down and jubilation erupts across Egypt. However, this is just the beginning of the film.
When The Square won the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance, the film ended with the democratic election of Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. The revolution did not end at this historical moment, however, and in the summer of 2013 thousands of Egyptians took to the streets when Morsi was accused of grabbing dictatorial powers. Noujaim and her crew decided to go back and continue filming. During this time Remy Assam, who “turned the chants of the revolution into songs” was detained and severely beaten.
While the film does well to communicate the realities of fighting the revolution on the ground, it does have its shortcomings. When the Egyptian military aim their might against the Muslim Brotherhood, the film goes strangely silent. Max Fisher of The Washington Post described the film’s portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood as “one-sided” and “polemic” and that the documentary could further entrench the current polarized political climate in Egypt. However, Noujaim treats the Brotherhood character Magdy Ashour with a great amount of warmth and empathy, and we come to understand his reasons for supporting Morsi and the Brotherhood. While her stance is clear, Noujaim never allows herself to reduce the conflict to binaries of good and evil. By the same account, she overlooks the military’s violent crackdown on the Brotherhood in August 2013, where hundreds of peaceful pro-Morsi civilians were killed. The Brotherhood has since been labeled a “terrorist” organization by the military-installed interim government, and all of its major leaders are either in jail or in exile.
Despite being a sobering and sometimes shocking account of the revolution, The Square ends on an upbeat, hopeful note. As Noujaim explained recently in an interview: ”What we’re going through in Egypt is a founding period. It’s not a transition period.” Even though Egypt’s revolution didn’t neatly end with a peaceful democratic moment, that doesn’t mean that this is a failed movement. In his book Networks of Outrage and Hope (Polity Press, 2012,) scholar and activist Manuel Castells names this expectation “a productivist vision of social action,” which seeks to apply economic logic to social movements. The biggest change in these movements occurs in the hearts and minds of the citizens who drive them, and cannot always be shown with clear results or data. As Ahmed says at the end of the film “We don’t need a new leader, we need a new consciousness.”
This is perhaps where Noujaim succeeds most in the film, conveying a sense of hope, resilience and the ongoing process of creating a new consciousness in the face of oppression. As Castells writes, “What matters most is the process, not the product… in fact the product is the process.” Never before has the revolutionary process been so beautifully captured on film (or in HD). The Square is a must see.