DOC NYC 2013: 'The Square' + 'Uranium Drive-In'

The Square (2013)

Two documentaries look back and forward, revealing a quickly shifting world suffused with ambitions and compromises.

The Square (Al Midan)

Director: Jehane Noujame
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Magdy Ashour, Aida Elkashef, Ramy Essam, Ahmed Hassan
Rated: NR
Studio: Noujaim Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-17 (DOC NYC)

Uranium Drive-In

Director: Suzan Beraza
Cast: Ayngel Overson, Tarri Lowrance, Bette Nickel Uravan, Howard and Betty Greagor
Rated: NR
Studio: Reelthing Films
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-11-15 (DOC NYC)

"Electricity is the least of our problems." It's January 2011 in Tahrir Square, in Egypt, and the lights have gone out -- here and all over Egypt. A candle glows in the center of a dark screen, and then, the frame cuts to one bathed in a faded, strangely lovely light. Ahmed Hassan pulls on his cigarette and smiles, then leads 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 says, before Egypt was changed forever. As he speaks, the camera in The Square, screening at DOC NYC on 17 November, follows him for a 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, hope is… tentative. Filmed over two years, Jehane Noujaim's The Square is a gorgeously composed, beautifully 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. As the protestors endeavor to look ahead, they're hard pressed to remember and forget at the same time, trying not to repeat the past but uncertain about what lies ahead.

When President Hosni Mubarak speaks to announce he will step down, his digital image looming over Tahrir Square, the crowd erupts, their celebration illuminated by fireworks and military helicopter lights, their cheers accompanied by triumphant gunfire. They can't now 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. But the film is focused not on strategizing sessions or events or even proclamations and claims so much as people. 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 and 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.

Another sort of struggle preoccupies the 519 citizens of Naturita, Colorado. They also imagine a future that's different from their lives now, dreams of a better economy and improved opportunities for their children, dreams of a Naturita the way it used to be during the '70s and early '80s, when uranium mining was booming. The mayor, Tarri Lowrance, contemplates the possibilities offered by Energy Fuels Inc., possibilities that do sound promising. The Toronto-based company's proposed Piñon Ridge Uranium Mill will be the first to be built in the US in three decades. Tarri wants to "see oil trucks running through the town, see the milling moving forward. The mill," she says, "will give us life."

Tarri's vision is hopeful in Suzan Beraza's Uranium Drive-In, screening at DOC NYC on 15 November, Ed Overson, a truck driver out of work for three years now, is a little less sanguine, noting the risks posed by nuclear power and mining too. His wife Ayngel, as he says, "has issues about it." They sit for their interview on a flower-patterned sofa, he in a Five Finger Death Punch (metal band) t-shirt, she in a patterned top and pretty necklace. "I would have problems with him underground mining," she nods, "I would have a real problem with something that could collapse or something. But we gotta eat, man." The camera cuts out to a wide shot, revealing a painting over the sofa, mountains and sky and a bright blue river, Colorado at its most Colorado-ish. "We kinda miss having money," she sums up.

Other kinds of doubts about the Piñon Ridge project are more pronounced, specifically by the Sheep Mountain Alliance, a Telluride-based environmental group, whose protests against the mill have to do with history as much as the potential risks. Jennifer Thurston remembers her father, who died in 1993 of leukemia after years working in an environment where he was exposed to radiation. "It's important for me to do this work," she says of raising awareness and holding corporations to account, "because he can't do it anymore." Uranium Drive-In, named for the theater residents remember from Naturita's heyday, when mines were the foundation of the local economy, follows all sides of the controversy, those who support Energy Fuels ' plans for Piñon Ridge, whose who are adamantly opposed, and those who feel they have to take the risks.

At town meetings, it's clear that no one sees mining as an ideal solution. "It's the head of a snake," says one speaker, "Once you start messing with it, extracting it, that's when you anger it." Others concede this, but they're not crazy about be lectured to, as one woman says, "It upsets us when people get up here and disparage the intelligence of the residents. We do know the dangers of mining uranium." The residents in Naturita grew up with it, saw their parents and grandparents do the work and pay the costs. Even knowing the choice is between bad options, they still "need to eat." Says another, “It’s almost like we’re still surviving, but it’s kinda just like those last few breaths. We wanna keep breathing, but we’ve gotta get something in here to do it.”

While they wait for that "something in here," Ed and Ayngel do what they can. She's a writer, which helps with some income. Ed designs second life avatars, and both are well versed in the world of online existence. "It's not real," says Ayngel, "But it actually gives you that fantasy life." It's a superb summation of so many aspects of what's going on in Naturita -- and perhaps in Cairo and elsewhere too. "Actually," that fantasy life, is a means to imagine another time and space, another set of options, another, insistent, still urgent now.

Uranium Drive-In (2013)

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