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A Revolution Without a Leader: 'Tahrir: Liberation Square'

Stefano Savona's film track the revolution's course with a mix of on-the-ground vérité footage, fleeting interviews, and discussions among the protestors .

Tahrir: Liberation Square

Director: Stefano Savona
Cast: Elsayed, Noha, Ahmed
Rated: NR
Studio: Icarus Films
Year: 2011
US date: 2012-06-11 (Maysles Cinema)
Speaker: The Middle East is like an artichoke. If you take off the leaves, what's left? What's the heart?

Crowd: Egypt!

Near the end of Tahrir: Liberation Square, the frame pauses on a single image, a suitcase. The person packing it is careful to fold the contents, including, as you see in this simple-seeming shot, a pair of jeans and a banner, a white bedsheet inscribed with words in Arabic. As the camera hovers, the packer smooths the fabrics.

The image aptly marks the end of the 18-day revolt in Tahrir Square in 2011, a protest sparked by frustrations with the Mubarak regime and facilitated by Facebook and cell phones, a movement of nonviolent civil disobedience that drew the attention of international media. Even as the closing of the suitcase signals the end of this moment, the subsequent, wider shots -- in which protestors use the camera to insist, "We will not be fooled," by the military or any other opportunistic forces -- indicate that the revolution is not nearly done.

It begins with the gathering of hundreds of protestors in Cairo. Stefano Savona's film -- screening this week at Maysles Cinema, part of the outstanding Documentary in Bloom Series -- opens on 30 January, the sixth day of the revolution, a title tells you. Tahrir: Liberation Square goes on to track its course with a mix of on-the-ground vérité footage (some from cell phones, most from handheld cameras that carry you into crowds), fleeting interviews with protestors ("They're corrupt, the whole country is corrupt, it's a systematic corruption"), and discussions among three young Egyptians named Elsayed, Noha, and Ahmed.

Their debates -- earnestly waged as they sit on the ground during relatively quiet periods -- reflect the idealism and confusion around them. they seek organization and focus, but appreciate the potency of the mass too, people coming together for their own reasons and also, an increasingly single idea, to oust Hosni Mubarak. As speakers atop tanks and crude stages rouse the crowds with calls to commitment and action ("We're not leaving from here!"), identification ("We're the legitimate power in the country!") or explanation ("We're an example to follow because we don’t use any weapons!"), the camera captures the people's pulsing energies, offering a very different view of the Square than western media were able to show at the time. Where televisions around the world showed pictures of the crowds, the fires, the government's efforts to police from afar, this film brings you closer.

That's not to say the film constructs a sense of intimacy with protestors: you don't know names, you don't know histories, you can watch in horror as injured participants are carried past the camera, faces bloodied and limbs hanging from makeshift gurneys. Rather, the film is keenest in its depictions of how the people in Tahrir understood, then and now, how to use the camera, to make their voices heard and their faces seen. "What they're saying about us outside this Square isn’t acceptable," notes one participant, wholly aware of the media's effects. "Here we're on a different planet. It's like the difference between Earth and Mars. Except that Tahrir Square is much closer."

Repeated direct addresses to the camera ensure that the chaotic imagery has a context, indeed, a series of contexts. On one level, the chronology of events is well known. First, the numbers of protestors increase, participants inspired by TV images and internet each day. Then Mubarak (now in critical condition in his prison hospital room) appears via a gigantic, Big Brotherish screen over the Square, decrying the "outsiders" who mean to exploit the "young" and insisting he must stay on to preserve "order." Individuals respond instantly to his frankly ludicrous proposition: "We won't go until he goes," they assert.

Their resolve leads to their use of materials at hand to show their outrage, as the chop at sidewalks to gather together chunks of cement to throw at the officers who mean to put them down. One remarkable long take shows a woman gather up a shirt full of chunks, then make her way through the crowd to the "front line," the camera jogging along behind her as she passes bloodied protestors headed back the other way.

Then again, their resolve is tested when uniformed police begin using live rounds to disperse the crowds. At least some protestors take up the challenge with brutal determination, again using the camera to make their points loudly and clearly ("Hosni Mubarak, you're a dead man!"). Others lead the camera to policemen who've been captured, framed from a slightly high angle, wincing in the light, maintaining their innocence. Throughout the long nights, protestors make noise, drawing the attention of international news crews, banging on fences and chanting, the rhythms of their calls and responses creating a pattern and sense of structure amid the mess.

When morning comes, the protestors come together again. They mean to maintain the stanch camaraderie among old and young, Christians and Muslims, men and women. They debate the uses of the constitution (should it be thrown out? does it give them a place to start again?), resist the possibility of a military coup (they've seen this before, or know the consequences from history). "Ours is a revolution without a leader," says one protestor proudly. As you appreciate this focus, you also see how Tahrir: Liberation Square quite brilliantly pieces together a series of moments and experiences to create a sense of purpose and intention, its seemingly disparate images of pain and anger, deliberation and decision coming together in a dynamic portrait of resistance.


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