[17 January 2014]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“This is normal. The lights are out all over the world, the lights are out all over Egypt,” says Ahmed Hassan. A single candle offers light in a dark frame, as Ahmed and a couple of unseen friends agree, “Electricity is the least of our problems.” It’s January 2011, and the friends go on to contemplate “All the little kids in the streets” who say, “Turn the lights back on man!” Ahmed’s hands and then the slim plane of his cheek appear briefly in the dark frame, as they ask what man could this be, they laugh, the man responsible for lights, or maybe the regime, so distant and so unaccountable. Here the frame cuts to another shot of Ahmed, fully lit, his smile broad and his cigarette in hand, checking, “Are you recording?”
These two shots of one young man beautifully set out pervasive themes for The Square (Al Midan), the ways that perspectives and circumstances can change, the charisma of youthful resistance, the resilience of oppressed peoples. Here, in the light, a lovely, translucently brownish light, Ahmed lights a cigarette and smiles. “Do as you like,” the off-camera recorder’s voice suggests, and so, he does, leading you on a walk through the streets of Cairo. “It all started,” he explains, because “Egypt was living without dignity, injustice was everywhere.”
This was “before the revolution,” Ahmed explains, before Egypt was changed forever—for good and ill. As he speaks, the camera in The Square follows him for another moment, then moves on, watching him from across the street as a single car passes by, then gazing down an empty road, the dawn beginning to break over a distant horizon. Now, the day begins, the city comes to life: people fill the street, but the camera keeps close on a young beautiful boy, another version of Ahmed, who worked from the time he was eight years old, who sold lemons and made deliveries, who paid his own fifth grade tuition, and might not have articulated what he can now, that “There was no hope for a future in this country.”
Now, like the daylight in that early scene, hope is… tentative, erratic, in flux. Its complexities, its many movements, are revealed in Jehane Noujaim’s remarkable documentary, newly nominated for an Oscar (the first nomination ever for Netflix) and opening in select theaters and on Netflix on 17 January. Filmed over two years, The Square is an exquisitely composed, impeccably edited evocation of a quickly shifting world suffused with ambitions and compromises. It follows six very different people involved in the ongoing revolution, working together even when they’re working (and framed) as individuals. While young Ahmed and the journalist Aida Kashef embody an appealing, even relentless idealism, they are accompanied on this uneven, thrilling, and sometimes upsetting journey by others who are older, more acutely aware of Egypt’s long and fitful history. The actor Khalid Abdalla, who starred in The Kite Runner serves repeatedly as an eloquent spokesperson for the cause.
The Square itself appears as a pulsing organism, filled with tents and protestors and vendors, observed by TV cameras, shot by cell phones and transmitted by social media all over the world, always present, almost future. In 2011, when President Hosni Mubarak announces he will step down, his digital image looming over Tahrir Square. Here the crowd erupts, their celebration illuminated by fireworks and military helicopter lights, their cheers accompanied by triumphant gunfire. The scene in The Square is thrilling, multiple angles on faces, on lights, on eyes looking up, this even as you know, now, that this moment is not close to a happy ending.
They can’t know in this moment—though some guess—that their struggle is unfinished, or that the military who seems in league with their efforts, might soon be headed in another direction, leading the revolution down yet another detour en route to its ever imminent completion. In Spring 2011, the revolution is still in motion. When the army decides to impose a curfew, attacking protestors to ensure their departure from the Square, the film shows chaos, dark frames tipping and falling, fearful and angry voices. Journalist Aida El Kashef insists “they can’t get away with this shit,” but they also can, especially when—as the group discovers when they return home—that the event hasn’t been reported on BBC or CNN. “Tahrir is a symbolic land,” Aida tells her editor over the phone, her silhouette stark against a nighttime window. “If you’ve got control of it, you’ve got the power, it pulls people to you.” If it’s not surprising that the army figures this out, the protestors realize they must continue to pursue their own symbolic strategies.
They discover one in the singer Ramy Essam, beaten, imprisoned, and electrocuted by police that night in Tahrir and willing to tell his story and show his injuries on the internet, exposing the military’s turn against the people in the form of this one, specific, dramatically visible figure. “The battle isn’t just rocks and stones,” says Khalid. “The battle is in the images, the battle is in the stories.” He brings Noujaim’s crew with him into a meeting of fellow storytellers, those who are waging the revolution through cameras and phones and websites, “what’s called ‘Popular Media,’” he says. “We should film as much as we can.” Still, he cautions, they can’t know when this media might be “used as evidence.” Exposure can work all ways, stories can be manipulated.
The film comes at this dynamic from all directions, from Khalid’s understanding to Ahmed’s optimism (“As long as there’s a camera, the revolution will continue”) to military spokesman General Hamdy Bekheit’s apprehension. The people will complain to the media, he says into his phone as he rides through the city in his official car, one eye directed at the documentary camera, “And we and the government don’t succeed, they have the right to criticize.”
The General’s savvy is refracted in the growing comprehension by protestors from many backgrounds that their story is not over. Magdy Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood member, expresses his frustration at the military’s slow movement, as well as the secret deals some Brotherhood members make with the army. “They use their presence in the Square as a negotiating tool,” he observes, “You know I think it is wrong.” Ahmed too expresses doubts about the Brotherhood’s call for Islamic rule, a chant heard increasingly frequently in the Square.
This tension continues to build throughout The Square, in conversations between individuals, in images of crowds and tents and murals in Tahrir. The film doesn’t provide answers to the many questions raised, it doesn’t suggest resolution in its own last moments, set in the Square in 2013, amidst new and ongoing protests against Mohammed Morsi’s government. “You and I agree,” Ahmed tells Magdy during an argument, “We both want the best for our country.” As the film shows Ahmed looking into his cell phone at videos of the protest, he suggests what “we’re looking for,” not a leader, but “a conscience.”
It may be that this conscience might be developed in images, in stories, in the many ways people perceive themselves and especially, each other. Repeatedly, the film underscores its primary interest in this process, in the people at its center. And they are brilliant, self-aware, using the many cameras that seek to show them—including Noujaim’s. This is the film’s most encouraging, most powerful, and most incisive insight, as much its subjects’ as its own: cameras, images, and communication can make the process of change vividly visible to the world. Even as the process continues in Egypt, its exposure ensures that it will now never die.