What does a revolution feel like from the inside? I’m not sure we’ll ever get closer than “The Square,” an electrifying, at times heartbreaking documentary from the Egyptian-born, Harvard-educated documentarian Jehane Noujaim (“Control Room”).
The title refers to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where the Arab Spring of 2011 spontaneously coalesced, energized, and erupted, resulting in President Hosni Mubarak’s removal from power after 30 years of rule. But because the story has continued to evolve, dramatically so in recent months, Noujaim’s film is longer (by eight minutes) than when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival a year ago. (The new version was just nominated for a DGA award and made the shortlist for best feature documentary Oscar nominations, which were announced Thursday morning, after this review went to press.) The film’s tenor has changed, too. It now also shows what betrayal feels like, on all sides.
The early scenes of “The Square,” of course, are a group portrait of joyous disbelief. The director follows a balanced handful of young Egyptians — faces in the crowd of the Square — from the midpoint of the 2011 uprising, just as it’s gathering critical mass. Actor Khalid Abdalla, raised in Scotland and the star of “The Kite Runner” (2007), has come back to a homeland he barely knows to man the barricades and press for change. Magdy Ashour is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who finds common cause and unlikely friendships with the secular revolutionaries.
There’s a young woman, a blogger named Aida Elkashef, but, frustratingly, we don’t see much of her. And there’s the movie’s undisputed star, a raffish lower-class kid named Ahmed Hassan who’s barely out of adolescence when the uprising begins and who, two years later, is fully wise to the ways of the world. That Ahmed holds on to his ideals and irrepressible sense of commitment in the face of all the Egyptian military and the Brotherhood can throw at his country is the movie’s most convincing claim to hope for the future.
And, honestly, it’s Ahmed who has his ear closest to the ground. When the military forces elections early after Mubarak’s ouster and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi is reluctantly voted in by many protesters, the young man hazards a guess that the new president is sowing the seeds for his own downfall. “The more they control, the more the people will hate them,” he says of the Brotherhood.
Ahmed also sees the hand of the military behind every new development, and is it paranoia when you’re probably right? If “The Square” were more interested in pressing a political case and digging deeper, it might do more than hint at a “soft coup” two years in the making. (The country’s top general, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, seen toward the end of the movie, is now readying his own candidacy for top office.)
“Fighting your own people is harder than fighting a regime,” Aida despairs as the rift between the Brotherhood and other Egyptian groups widens. After the actual coup — when Morsi was removed from office by the military in July 2013 and a series of violent reprisals against his followers ensued — we see the firebrands of Tahrir Square struggle to keep their goal of a free, democratic Egypt in sight. Magdy, earlier seen urging his son to “think for yourself” rather than act on orders from Brotherhood leaders, fears for his life but remains friends with Ahmed. And this fierce, impassioned work of documentary impressionism ends with nothing resolved other than that its main characters remain ready to fill the streets as necessary. Says Khalid, the prodigal actor, “We won’t know if this revolution has succeeded for decades.”