The "Arab Spring" — a term frequently used to describe the various countries in the Middle East rising against their much-maligned leaders — rages on in full force. Though the wave of revolution is powerful, the media tends to be very selective in its coverage, focusing on one country before quickly moving onto another. You can't blame someone if they just assumed Egypt was just dandy now given the lack of coverage, as Libya's the new paramour.
But let's avoid pointing fingers — in their defense, the media can only give prime coverage to so many things and at a certain point we must take responsibility for ourselves to actively be in-the-know. At the moment, former President Hosni Mubarak is on trial for ordering the murder of demonstrators during the initial protests in January 2011. The people have become restless with the crawling political change and are generally suspicious of the interim military government; elections are imminent but not soon enough. Despite their relative impatience (they were, after all, under a "state of emergency" since 1967), it's easy to forget that this entire movement is very young and began with their first major protests on January 25th.
Italian director Stefano Savona brings us back to those early days of the anti-government demonstrations with "Tahrir," an extremely intimate cinema-verite documentary observing the protests that forced Mubarak to officially resign from his government position. The title is appropriate given that the cameras never move from that one location, so much so that it becomes a character itself. Certain faces become familiar as the film goes on, but distinctive personalities are less focused on in favor of a unified, collective mindset.
The film opens with a powerful chant — one of the many emotive, passionate mantras that swell the area. Savona fills his frame with protesters that are energetic, but he then turns to the less enthused; single shots displaying what appears, at first, to be people either bored or unsold. Yet as the visual lingers, we get to know these few people, and interpretation of hopelessness gives way to a reserved, yet absolutely present determination. Elsewhere, young adults lament the lack of a leader at the front of the revolution and the possibility that, eventually, the Muslim Brotherhood will win an election and erect an Islamic state rather than a secular one. While the collective has no concrete plan, one of the them chimes in and states that everyone has joined together regardless of religion for one common issue. There is no one leader, but there is everyone.
Thanks to the lack of an up-front filmmaker personality and traditional interviews or hand-holding narration, "Tahrir" succeeds in being a perfect of-the-moment time capsule, transporting the viewer right into the middle of the scuffle. In fact, Savona's camera is so involved in the demonstrations that it often feels like an individual that's part of them rather than just watching them. It's a level of interactivity that's rarely achieved with other movies like this, which goes a long way considering most of its audience knows exactly the kind of things that went down during this protest and what the ultimate ending to this activist march was.
Smartly, the director also plays with the mood and tone of the film, preventing things from ever becoming too one-note. Moments of violence (protesters dig up the street for rocks to hurl into the air) are also brothered with humorous instances such as a stand-up session involving a bumbling Mubarak impression. In a similar fashion, the camera occasionally strays from its up-close-and-personal attitude and covers more ground; one particular wide shot stunningly captures an entire crowd on their knees in mid-prayer. For a film genre that generally gets away with paying less attention to framing and pure visual beauty, this documentary's look can be surprisingly arresting at times.
Subjects like this are rarely given the respect and intelligence that "Tahrir" has; generally directors are quick to make propaganda pieces full of cartoons and dry interview sessions. No, this is a much more worthwhile experience than that, a completely potent film covering a human triumph, bereft of belittlement. This is a highly engaging film, not for the passive viewer, and absolutely able enough to make even the most reluctant viewer a participant. [A-]
This is a reprint of our review from the New York Film Festival. "Tahrir" opens in limited release today.