The Square

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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.

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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.

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Magdy, talking about repeatedly waking up surrounded by secret police in his family home.

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.

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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.

The Wolfpack

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Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack documents the lives of the six Angulo brothers Bhagavan, Govinda, Narayana, Mukunda, Krisna and Jagadesh. Boys who spent their childhood almost entirely confined within a New York apartment and who found escape through film. The brothers are a product of a Peruvian father (Oscar Angulo) and American mother (Susanne Angulo) who met on the trail of Machu Picchu and subsequently settled in New York City with hopes of emigrating to Scandinavia. On moving to New York, Oscar who was heavily influenced by the teachings of Hare Krishna, was struck by the chaotic nature of the modern capitalist city he saw around him, and fearing the dangers of socialisation for his children kept them for sometimes years at a time in their small apartment. Their father’s influence on the boys is strikingly visual, they are a product of his desire to make his ‘own race’, a concept he partly enforced through assigning all of the children Sanskrit names. They dress in matching clothes and most strikingly all have long waist length dark hair. This documentary captures on film the brother’s survival, through film.

Film for most of us provides a temporary escape from reality, for the Angulo brothers it functioned as much more. Hollywood movies not only punctured the insular world of their apartment but also allowed the boys to imagine new realities. As Mukunda says ‘movies opened up another world.’ The brothers meticulously transcribe and create ingenious costume to enact Hollywood classics like ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Pulp Fiction’ and ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas.’ The documentary also follows the brother’s literal escape and the part that film plays in this, as they begin to explore the city using what Hollywood has taught them as a blueprint to navigate the world beyond. It was on one of these rare trips into New York that filmmaker Crystal Moselle, struck by their unusual appearance, noticed the brothers and formed an unlikely friendship. This relationship would produce 500 hours of film over five years and go on to secure the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2015.

The brilliance of this film is its surprising warmth, despite the subject matters great potential for darkness. This is not to say the film doesn’t have its moments of shade. Moselle captures the claustrophobia of the apartment through her intimate close up interviews with the boys all conducted within their home, and it is testament to her relationship that they expose such painful vulnerability and fear. She also permits the spectre of an abusive and authoritarian father to oppressively haunt these interviews through his absence on camera until half way through the film. The film abounds with powerful images of loneliness and isolation, where the only light illuminating the apartment is that of a small glaring tv.

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But what shines through in this film is creativity, resilience and brotherhood. There is so much humour in the enactments of the movies the boys recreate. A particularly great moment is the boy’s take on ‘The Dark Knight’, complete with a Batman costume made from cereal boxes and yoga mats. There is also such beauty in the truly rare childlike purity and naivety that Moselle captures in the boy’s experiences in New York. This beauty is pushed further by the brother’s looking and talking as though they have just walked off of the set of Tarantino’s ‘Reservoir Dogs.’ But what I felt most watching this documentary was the uplifting feeling that these boys had finally made their own real movie. This film has such depth and complexity, far greater than I could attempt to capture in a single post, but I can guarantee it will be unlike anything you have seen before, and I hope you find the time to watch it.

Where can you find it?

Pretty much everywhere, Sky have it On Demand, Amazon, NowTV, YouTube and Google for a couple of $$.