Film

Jehane Noujaim's Oscar-Nominated Documentary 'The Square' in Theaters and on Netflix

This is the film's most powerful incisive insight, as much its subjects' as its own: cameras, images, and communication can make the process of change vividly visible to the world.


The Square (Al Midan)

Director: Jehane Noujame
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan, Aida Elkashef, Magdy Ashour, Ramy Essam
Rated: NR
Studio: Participant Media, Netflix
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-01-17 (Limited release)
UK date: 2014-01-14 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"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.

10

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.


20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta



19. Antwood: Sponsored Content (Planet Mu)

Sponsored Content is a noisy, chaotic, occasionally beautiful work with a dark sense of humor that's frequently deployed to get Antwood's point across. For instance, throughout the aforementioned "Disable Ad Blocker", which sounds mostly like the creepy side of Tangerine Dream's early '80s experimental output, distorted slogans and recognizable themes worm their way into the mix. "I'm Loving It", we hear at one point, the Sony PlayStation startup music at another. And then there's a ten-second clip of what sounds like someone getting killed in a horror movie. What is there to make of the coexistence of those sorts of samples? Probably nothing explicit, just the uneasiness of benign and instantly-recognizable brand content in the midst of harsh, difficult art. Perhaps quality must to some extent be tied to sponsorship. That Antwood can make this point amidst blasts and washes of experimental electronic mayhem is quite the achievement. - Mike Schiller



18. Bonobo - Migration (Ninja Tune)

Although Bonobo, a.k.a. Simon Green, has been vocal in the past about not making personality driven music, Migration is, in many respects, a classic sounding Bonobo record. Green continues to build sonic collages out of chirping synths, jazz-influenced drums, sweeping strings and light touches of piano but on Migration sounds more confident than ever. He has an ability to tap into the emotions like few others such as on the gorgeous "Break Apart" and the more percussive "Surface". However, Bonobo also works to broaden his sound. The electro-classical instrumental "Second Sun" floats along wistfully, sounding like it could have fit snugly onto a Erased Tapes compilation, while the precise and intricate "Grains" shows the more intimate and reflective side of his work. On the flipside, the higher tempo, beat driven tracks such as "Outlier" and "Kerala" perfectly exhibit his understanding of what works on the dance floor while on "Bambro Koyo Ganda" he even weaves North African rhythms into the fabric. Migration is a multifaceted album full of personality and all the better for it. - Paul Carr


17. Kiasmos - Blurred EP (Erased Tapes)

The Icelandic duo of Olafur Arnalds and Janus Rasmussen, aka Kiasmos, is a perfect example of a pair of artists coming from two very different musical backgrounds, finding an unmistakable common ground to create something genuinely distinctive. Arnalds, more known for his minimal piano and string work, and Rasmussen, approaching from a more electropop direction, have successfully explored the middle ground between their different musical approaches and in doing so crafted affecting minimalist electronic music. Blurred is one of the most emotionally engaging electronic releases of the year. The duo is working from a refined and bright sonic palette as they consummately layer fine, measured sounds together. It is an intricate yet unforced and natural sounding set of songs with every song allowed room to bloom gradually. - Paul Carr



16. Ellen Allien - Nost (BPitch Control)

BPitch boss and longtime lynchpin of the DJ scene in Berlin, Ellen Allien's seven full-length releases show an artist constantly reinventing herself. Case in point, her 2013 offering, LISm, was a largely beat-less ambient work designed to accompany an artsy dance piece, while its follow-up, 2017's Nost, is a hardcore techno journey, spiritually born in the nightclubs and warehouses of the early '90s. It boasts nine straight techno bangers, beautifully minimalist arrangements with haunting vocals snippets and ever propulsive beats, all of which harken back to a hallowed, golden, mostly-imagined age when electronic music was still very much underground, and seemingly anything was possible. - Alan Ranta

It's just past noon on a Tuesday, somewhere in Massachusetts and Eric Earley sounds tired.

Since 2003, Earley's band, Blitzen Trapper, have combined folk, rock and whatever else is lying around to create music that manages to be both enigmatic and accessible. Since their breakthrough album Furr released in 2008 on Sub Pop, the band has achieved critical acclaim and moderate success, but they're still some distance away from enjoying the champagne lifestyle.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image