The Western world viewed the Tahrir Square uprising through selective media filters and left the personal dimension largely ignored, which makes the handheld footage on display in Sundance World Competition documentary “1/2 Revolution” both stunning and vital. Shot by a group of progressive multinational friends on various devices during the heat of the drama, the material gets up close with the events and the mindset of the people experiencing them. Almost diary-like in its intimacy, “1/2 Revolution” is a thrilling first-person action movie empowered by immediacy.
Beginning at the start of uprising on January 25, 2011, the documentary quickly introduces its cast of intellectuals with a series of freeze frames and title cards, as if imagining a reality show that will never get made. Each one — the American Karim, the Palestinian Omar, Karim’s Egyptian father and the Lebanese-French Philipe — sports an ethnically distinct origin story. Together they discuss a strategy for capturing the collective protests, protests that would lead to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation as Egyptian president nearly a month later. “We’re not just spectators anymore,” says one. “Film everything.”
And so they do, holding nothing back in an immersive experience strung together like a series of brilliantly curated YouTube clips. The directorial credit goes to two of the participants, Karim El Hakim and Omar Shargawi, but it contains a cast of thousands, captured in the heat of frantic crowd behavior as the police close in. Shifting between the chaos on the streets and the de facto bunker of a downtown apartment, “1/2 Revolution” delves into historic developments by letting its subjects deconstruct them.
“It’s the wild west,” says one, as they evaluate ongoing battles where they document escalating tensions in vivid detail. “1/2 Revolution” works as a collection of moments: On the streets, frantic running and shouting dominate the senses. The filmmakers compulsively attempt to capture everything at once, keeping a close watch on the secret police (“the real motherfuckers”), engaging in heated debates with morally conflicted soldiers, fleeing bombs and gunfire. Implicating the audience in the process, “1/2 Revolution” is a record of its making dominated by the urge to put history on tape. “Go film the people dying over there,” goes one direction.
It’s easy to get drawn into these proceedings without paying attention to the individuals capturing them. However, it’s the melting pot of cultural identities that define the movie’s strength beyond its angry screed. Simultaneously proud of their country and terrified for its future, the heroes of “1/2 Revolution” aren’t entirely convinced they shouldn’t just run away. That makes their plight a startling contrast to “Tahrir,” another documentary about the Cairo protests, which remains exclusively within the confines of the titular location. The “1/2 Revolution” team sees no specific end in sight. While excited by the possibilities of the Arab Spring, they also worry about the lack of payoff. As news reports play over the records, El Hakin and Sargawi make it clear that the revolution is a work in progress. They have made a timely movie unlikely to lose its power anytime soon.
Criticwire grade: A
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The rare fast-paced conversation-starter, “1/2 Revolution” could land a small U.S. distributor with the ability to turn it into a talking point, leading to solid returns in very limited release. It should also continue to receive acclaim along the national festival circuit.