Revolution is a word bandied about often, arguably too often. In times of disconnect and discontent, people look for answers, relying on the strength of their ideals to carry them past status quo fear-mongering through to actual change. Two weeks ago, Russell Brand raised a vague call to revolutionary arms while promoting his guest-editing gig for The New Statesman’s revolution-themed issue. Both the TV spot and that issue received derision for Brand’s uncertain, though grandiose, terms. Similarly, this week marks the second anniversary of the Occupy movement, which has become a pratfall of an uprising (as seen on The Onion). The danger in both (and many more examples, due to the atavism of higher idealism, which you can check out at your local library) is that we have become desensitized to the word revolution: its immediacy, its call to act, the need of it as a check to the balance of “democracy.” Screening at this year’s Sundance and Toronto film festivals, opening in limited release on October 25th, and already being picked up by Netflix, Jehane Noujaim‘s “The Square” brings the importance of the word revolution to the film’s foreground, one beyond utopian and dystopian rhetoric. Following a few individuals during the Egyptian Revolution, Noujaim (an Egyptian-American female documentary filmmaker) and her team of cameras capture the on-the-ground happenings at Tahrir Square, from the overthrow of one president (President Hosni Mubarak) to the deposition of another (President Mohamed Morsi).
The film opens with an electrical outage in Cairo (a regular occurrence) and two men speaking over candlelight about how “electricity is the least of our problems,” in a clear allusion to the country’s political unrest. One of those men is Ahmed Hassan, who acts as the affable eyes of the revolution for the film’s audience. Bordering on too coincidental, Ahmed scrolls through Facebook posts of battered faces and watches a YouTube video of a young woman calling people to protest, to which Ahmed takes to the streets and goes to Tahrir Square. Over the course of the film, Ahmed rallies the people around him with smiles and thoughtful conversations, believing that good things will come for Egypt with Mubarak out of power. Alongside him in the film’s narrative are two key, though socioeconomically disparate, figures: Cambridge-educated, Egyptian-Briton actor Khalid Abdalla and member of the Muslim Brotherhood Magdy Ashour. Whereas Khalid spent the few years leading up to the revolution producing and acting in films, including a lead role in “The Kite Runner,” Magdy was regularly detained and tortured at the hands of Egyptian police. All three are drawn to the Square for change and together for that cause, though each goes down different paths as the idealistic uprising evolves into an ongoing struggle, still yet to be settled.
As the revolution turns from a populist humanist endeavor to a front for a religious right takeover, unfurling unpredictably in front of the camera lens, Ahmed and Khalid become wary when the Muslim Brotherhood takes power while Magdy stands by his group and his faith, believing it’s the best for Egypt and relieved not to be thrown in jail as much under this regime. Through these three narratives being paired with the smaller plot threads (though notably lacking in enough female voices to balance the three male narrators), “The Square” pushes past the crowds that we have become all too familiar with on CNN to the individual stories of humanity suffering at the hands of unlawful and unjust regimes.
We see Ramy Essam, the singer-turned-figurehead, go from being lauded and applauded at rallying concerts to later being battered and bruised by the regime. There’s the red-headed lawyer whose daily job has become fighting with police to release unlawfully arrested protesters. We may not agree with Magdy’s politics, but when you see his young daughter recalling how it wasn’t unusual for him not to come home at night and with his family worrying for his safety, you can see why he would bond even more strongly together with the Brotherhood, especially after they take power. After decades in political exile, Khalid’s liberal father weeps for joy at the news that Mubarak has been deposed, and by the people no less. All of these facets and more (including an interview with a high-up political official) come together in an attempt to document the highs and lows of the past three years in Egyptian politics from the people’s perspective.
As anyone could read through various outlets what happened on Tahrir Square from 2011 to 2013, “The Square” shows us how it happened, on a human level. Even so, the film still doesn’t quite get to why it was so important. There’s no moral or conclusion beyond the fact that the ongoing struggle between the power and the people in Egypt will remain for the foreseeable future. This is the truth behind revolution—fighting “the good fight” never ends. It’s nice to believe in progress and hope, but it’s not as simple as one event, however big or however flogged through social media. For people like Ahmed, they’re stuck dealing with police and military on a day-to-day basis and rallying on the streets for years when they just “want to go home and sleep.”
The gnawing question remains as to whether this collective movement is still “the good fight.” Whereas Mubarak held onto power for three decades against the will of the people, Morsi was lawfully elected. Even though Morsi’s regime was politically incongruent with the movement’s original ideals, he, and it, was still lawfully elected. The film hints that the military complex was possibly behind most, if not all, of the goings on, with a member of the military saying that they were the ones to throw Mubarak out of power, not the people. And similarly, they put Morsi in power, knowing full well that he would not hold the position for long. Unfortunately, these theories are never fully fleshed out. Through Noujaim’s lenses, we’re put amongst the people, but we, and the film, still seem to have few answers for what’s really going on in Egyptian politics, outside of a general sense of uncertainty. “The Square” gives us the context of Egyptian uprisings, full of heart and hope, but the crux of the Revolution remains muddy. [B]