A welcome contrast to the Western media's bird's eye view of the seismic January 2011 revolution in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the energetic verité documentary "Tahrir: Liberation Square" dives right into the action. As directed and shot by Italian filmmaker Stefano Savona, its principle strength is the immediacy of the content: Assembling a collage of young and old Egyptians united by the prospects of a post-Mubarak future, Savona allows the revolution to speak for itself.
The movie begins on January 30, 2011, the sixth day of the Tahrir Square protests (presumably when Savona first turned his camera on). Although program notes for the film describe it as following three young Egyptians named Elsayed, Noha and Ahmed, Savona follows many others, capturing fragments of passionate conversations and rousing speeches. In a bold maneuver that makes "Tahrir" more expressive than journalistic, he avoids adding captions to the screen that might easily identify any characters. Instead, he collects snippets of tentative excitement in addition mounting fears (the words "a revolution without a leader" are stated more than once).
A good portion of the documentary is made up of chants, most of which relate to the widespread poverty of Egyptian citizens and the gulf between their struggles and the posh lives of their leaders. The call-and-response approach makes the case for viewing the Arab Spring as paragon of grassroots activism in the twenty-first century. "Tell me Egyptian, what do you want?" beckons one leader. The reply: "Egypt wants democracy."
Social media influence abounds. Savona's camera is onstage when Google executive Wael Ghonim addresses the masses about the success of their actions. References to the influential "Khalid Said" Facebook group and mobile phone updates on reports of Mubarak's decision to resign also endow "Tahrir" with a contemporary distinction. Despite those new tools, old dangers remain: Some protesters, drafting demands from the government, express skepticism over whether the domineering Muslim Brotherhood deserves to take the mantle of new leadership.
Packed with one fluid exchange after another, "Tahrir" enthusiastically sprints toward Mubarak's resignation for a rewarding climax. However, despite the intimate perspective, Savona fails to create a cogent movie out of the material. By drifting around, he makes it difficult to identify specific characters or protract a unifying thesis about the events at hand.
Still, "Tahrir" benefits from a first-rate approach to montage that won't quit (perhaps thanks to editor Penelope Bortoluzzi). A vain speech by Mubarak in which he states his intention of "staying in my place to project calm" is shown to the crowd on a ramshackle screen, while cutaways to dozens of faces display an increasing frustration that gives way to aggressive chants ("Game over, Mubarak"). When a poet begins to read one of his recent works to a fellow activist, his voice continues on the soundtrack over images of the protest, giving it a collective voice: "In a country of death, we court the light: Revenge."
Beyond those constructed moments, the appeal of "Tahrir" is intrinsic to the footage. Even the words "the end" are written on a protest sign rather than superimposed end credits. For that reason, "Tahrir" gains much of its value from archival purposes, regardless of whether or not it functions in conventional documentary terms. Lacking any historical distance from the events that would allow for cautious dissection of their ramifications, "Tahrir" leaves open the lingering question of what its contents will look like in years to come, and whether they will merit a sequel.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Icarus Films releases "Tahrir" in theaters today. Its two timely hooks — the Mubarak trial and the upcoming Egyptian presidential election — should help it garner some additional attention, although it will generally find audiences over time among those interested in the numerous films about the topic currently making the rounds.
Editor's note: A version of this review originally ran at the 2011 Locarno International Film Festival.