I hesitate to call The Square (2013) one of my favourite films because the word ‘favourite’ doesn’t quite feel right. A ‘favourite’ film to me implies that I could watch it over and over again, I couldn’t. This documentary is demanding, and at points difficult to watch. But it is without question the most moved I have ever been by a film of any genre. The Square has left a lasting impression on me. It encapsulates why I think documentaries truly matter, through collapsing difference and distance and replacing these with compassion and connection.
In 2011 thousands of Egyptians took to Tahrir Square in Cairo to call for the removal of their president Hosni Mubarak. Vowing to remain in the square until their demands were met, the revolutionaries called for freedom from a regime that for 30 years had imposed state of emergency law under which human rights were routinely violated. This documentary follows the Egyptian people’s struggle to redefine itself, capturing history as it happens, at street level. It documents Mubarak’s fall from power, the introduction of a military fascist regime and its replacement by a religious equivalent. Calling for the people of Egypt to repeatedly return to the square to demand change. What remains constant, and what this film captures so beautifully is the power and resilience of the Egyptian people hungry for revolution, justice, and the establishment of a new ‘conscious’ era for Egypt.
Egyptian-American Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim‘s verite style is totally immersive. You are transported to Tahrir Square, seeing through the eyes of the six revolutionaries. It is this style that makes the documentary so moving. You share in the exhilaration of revolutionary change, and the fear and pain of violent oppression. It forces you to witness in uncomfortable proximity the atrocities inflicted by the State on the Egyptian people. It casts an unflinching eye on electrocutions, brutal beatings and murders. It may be hard to watch, but it must be watched. A camera, this film proves is a tool of revolution. (Noujaim herself was arrested three times during the film’s making). Footage of the atrocities, like those this film captures, reaching an international audience through social media was instrumental to Mubarak’s removal. By viewing these scenes without censor you are playing a part in memorialising the innocent lives the State claimed.
The six revolutionaries; Ahmed, Magdy, Khalid, Ramy, Aida, and Ragia are all captivating. Noujaim crafts the film expertly, thrusting the realities of war upon us more forcefully by inviting deep and personal investment in the fate of these revolutionaries. Magdy, a father and member of the Muslim Brotherhood is a particularly interesting figure. The Muslim Brotherhood’s part in the revolution is complex. Violently persecuted under Mubarak, The Brotherhood too called for his removal. However, Brotherhood leadership would later cut deals with the military and establish their own regime under a Brotherhood presidential candidate. We find Magdy torn by his deep commitment to his faith, and his desire to ‘follow his own conscience.’ His relationship to the remaining five interestingly represents the polarization of the Egyptian people, but more importantly it movingly portrays how friendship supersedes political principle.
It is rare to capture true heroism on film, something that Noujaim manages again and again. A moment with Ahmed Hassan, a gifted speaker and filmmaker, has stayed with me since I first watched this film two summers ago. Amid a military attack Ahmed is sitting on the curb, washing his hands and face before he carefully winds a scarf around his head to cover his mouth. We then follow him as he joins the front line of revolutionaries, the panicked camera man calling for him to return back to a safer distance and to be careful. This moment of unexpected calm amongst chaos, powerfully makes you feel you have witnessed a decision to sacrifice everything for change, a moment that is unlike any other.
The Square leaves you not with a sense of defeat but with hope that change will come. Although the Egyptian people’s fight for a new ‘conscious’ society continues, the revolution has firmly established a culture of protest. The people will continue to demand change. Ahmed calls the revolution’s greatest achievement ‘that the children now play a game called protest.’ This film is testament to the power of the people, an idea literalised by it becoming the first crowd-funded film to be nominated for an Oscar. Watching this documentary is intense, it is gripping, but most of all it is inspiring.
Where can you watch it?
It couldn’t be easier, it’s on Netflix.