Title: The Square
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Screenwriter: Jehane Noujaim
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan, Aida Kashef, Magdy Ashour, Ragia Omran, Ramy Essam, Aida El Kashef, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 10/16/13
Opens: November 1, 2013
Golly…look at all those people demonstrating in Cairo’s Tahir Square. Millions! Perhaps the largest single demonstration in world history, according to the narrator. What’re they saying? “Death to Israel?” Nope. “Down with America?” Sorry, not there either. What, then, could possibly draw so many Egyptians to the street, women included?
Here is your answer. Egyptians are against Egyptians. No, they’re not saying “Death to Egyptians,” but you get the impression from this riveting documentary, two years in the making, that large groups of people would not mind a helluva lot if their own leaders were , say, disposed of. What leaders you ask? Why, first there’s Mubarak, who ruled like a tyrant for thirty years, jailing and torturing opponents to his regime at least while the army was behind him. Despite this despotism, he was not all bad. After all he banned female genital mutilation and preserved his predecessor’s treaty with Israel. He also kept the political Islamists quiet, though, granted, with less than democratic means.
However, in this Arab spring, when young men’s (and women’s) fancy lightly turned to thoughts of freedom, the masses took to the streets, principally to Cairo’s Tahir Square, a locus for rebellion not unlike that of Beijing’s Tienanmen Square, where one brave young person once stood in front of a tank, daring it to knock him down. Tiring of the demonstrations, Mubarak admitted defeat and stepped down.
One down, and then freedom! No, again. The Egyptian people realized that one man’s defeat does not a democracy make, so back they went to Tahir Square to kvetch once again, this time against military rule. The army promised elections but you know how armies are in that part of the world. When the people tired of uniformed guys whom they called fascists, they demanded and got a free election. One problem: Mohamed Morsi, representative of the Muslim Brotherhood though with just 51% of the vote (presumably few from the secular Egyptians), overreached his authority and resorted to Mubarek-like tactics. After putting up with demonstrations once again, the army firing live bullets at the huge crowds, the military deposed Morsi. What’s not in the film is that while the U.S. supposedly stands behind legitimate democratic elections and opposes military coups, Obama decided that Morsi was not overthrown by a coup. I wonder if that’s because the U.S. did not look with favor on political Islamists? The military’s in charge now. Tune in to find out about yet a second democratic election.
Those are the basic facts. But facts in themselves do not always evoke tension. Jehane Noujaim, who has quite a résumé of films to her credit including “Control Room” in 2004 which deals with Al Jazeera’s perception of the U.S. war with Iraq, is the tireless hero of the Egyptian rebellions. Noujaim, utilizing big-screen archival film, takes us in the audience into Tahir Square with brilliant close-ups of the political sides: not just the army against the people, but the people against one another, depending on whether the individuals are secular or political Islamists.
Ahmed Hassan, one of the charismatic fellows on display, is a firebrand who is infused with all the idealism of his generation. He was willing to wait and see what would happen after Mubarek’s overthrow, but opined that it was a mistake for the people to go home and fold their tents because, well, you can’t trust the army to be freedom-loving and to hand out pita and baba ganoush to the people.
For his part, Rami Essam takes on the role of the revolution’s singer, belting out protest songs as though inspired by Pete Seeger and the Weavers. For his part Magdy Ashour, a pro-Islamic Brotherhood guy, debates Ahmed but has become disturbed by the actions of his putative leader, Mohammed Morsi, who overreaches himself to become in Morsi’s mind “the new Pharaoh.” Less of a magnet but more of an educated man speaking fluent British English, Khalid Abdalla, who acted the principal role of Amir in the narrative “The Kite Runner,” affords us a lucid rundown of events and viewpoints.
This is not one of those dull, unbiased documentaries. Director Nourjaim finds herself strongly with the progressive secularists, ignoring pro-Brotherhood people with the exception of Magdy, who even comes out against his former champion, Morsi. Nor is this one of those dull, frustrating docs that feature talking heads sitting in chairs, answering interview questions. Aside from a quickie question on CNN-TV from Anderson Cooper, all the furious talk takes place in the field with nobody, thankfully, serving as interrogator. This is truly a revolution that has been not only televised, but featured on Youtube and the social media as well, with Twitter keeping us informed blow by blow and minute by minute of the proceedings.
We in the U.S. could compare the actions of these brave Egyptians with our demonstrations against the Vietnam War during the 1960s, when our army with few exceptions did not hand out flowers (though some accepted daisies from demonstrators), and which was the basis of several songs as well. While critics of the sixties rebels could rightly point out that their fervor came in large part from their fear of being drafted, you could not say the same of the Egyptians, most of whom would probably be able to go about their lives under Morsi or Mubarek minding their own business and not being harmed.
What’s missing in the pic is a look at economic causes of the frustration. Was the anger merely political? While there were cries of “bread, freedom, end of corruption, and social justice,” where is the evidence that poverty was increasing, that inflation was rising, that government subsidies were disappearing?
If filmmaker Jehane Moujaim anchors the proceedings, much credit should go to the team of editors for a terrific job of keeping the proceedings logical and continuous, underscoring the themes that we take for granted in our own Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Let’s hope for the best for Egypt. If the U.S. can recover from a government shutdown and threatened bankruptcy, anybody can. Kumbaya, everyone.
Unrated. 104 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A-
Technical – A
Overall – A-