The title of “The Square” refers to Tahrir Square, the Cairo plaza in which protesters gathered and rallied in early 2011 to successfully oust President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of rule. The location comes to have a more complicated resonance as filmmaker Jehane Noujaim’s moving Oscar-nominated documentary, which went live on Netflix as an exclusive offering last night at 12:01pm PT, continues to document the upheaval in Egypt past the point when Mubarak stepped down, after the army and then Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi come into power and are subsequently removed from it.
Noujaim first premiered a version of “The Square” at Sundance in 2013, but the story didn’t feel complete given what was still and what continues to unfold in Egypt, and so she and her collaborators added to and reworked the film to include footage through the summer, as turmoil continued. The story doesn’t feel complete in this new version, either, but that’s part of its bittersweet theme of revolution being part of the battle, not its happy ending or solution.
“We dreamed that all of Egypt could be like Tahrir Square,” someone says as Mubarak steps down, and in the heady days of the initial protests the film documents, it’s easy to see why — the square is a place where class and religious affiliation no longer seem like the divisions they might outside, where everyone is joined together in a shared vision of change and willing to die for a better future. As much as it’s a scene for violence against the protesters, particularly later on, the square is also a utopia of tents and newspapers on the ground, where its temporary population gather of cups of tea and cigarettes to dream of a new government. It’s one recreated again, in a less idealistic but no less passionate mode again and again as the functional democracy many of the participants dream of refuses to materialize.
The subjects that Noujaim follows represent a cross-cut of the population. There’s the charismatic Ahmed Hassan, who grew up poor and who speaks of the revolution in the most optimistic terms, and there’s the Magdy Ashour, who ends up torn between his membership in the Muslim Brotherhood and his sincerely felt Tahrir friendships. There’s the U.K.-born Khalid Abdalla, a Cambridge-educated actor (in “United 93,” “The Kite Runner” and others) who returns to Egypt to take up the activism his family has been devoted to for generations. And there’s Aida Elkashef, one of many women in the square, and Ramy Essam, who sings revolutionary songs, and Pierre Seyoufr, who owns an adjacent building from which the film catches some breathtaking overhead shots. “We found ourselves loving each other without even realizing it,” Ahmed observes, and those early scenes are ones of thrilling unity, and people and even the army coming together for something new.
It’s what comes after that becomes murkier and more disillusioning, as “The Square” provides a gripping and frequently astonishing street-level view and elaboration on events that played out more abstractly on the international news. First there’s the betrayal of the army, who refuse to comply with their promises to the people and to hand over power. And after that hard-won battle there’s the matter of the Muslim Brotherhood, who win first hasty parliamentary elections and then the presidential one, ultimately leading to Morsi granting himself even more power than Mubarek had. This split plays out wrenchingly for Magdy and his former comrades, who find themselves on opposite sides, with Magdy reluctantly keeping to his old loyalties even as it tears him away and as he learns his son was one of those sent out to knock down tents and hurl rocks at protesters.
Photographed on DSLRs, sometimes while literally on the run, “The Square” is improbably beautiful for all the action it captures, with one of the multiple cinematographers listed, Muhammad Hamdy, using an unexpected tilt–shift approach that lends a dreamlike feel to sequences that are obviously captured on the fly and that look nothing like news footage. From Ahmed walking down the middle of the street to a man covered in blood, gasping “our army is killing us,” the film has an immediacy not just in the events it documents but in its cinematic qualities — it doesn’t serve up information, it serves up experiences, more that can be contained in even an updated feature, that go on (not without hope) to this day. Revolution may not be a solution unto itself, but it’s a place that can be returned to.