There is no such thing as a comprehensive narrative of the Egyptian revolution. Anyone attempting such a thing will most likely fail, as the complex evolution of a people’s uprising to where Egypt is today cannot be summarised in one story, let alone a 108-minute film.
What director Jehane Noujaim does fantastically in her award-winning documentary ‘The Square’ (2013) is capture the emotional rollercoaster endured by pro-revolution protesters over the course of three years, from euphoric triumph and determination post-25 January 2011 to the deepest pits of depression, defeat and loss.
After years of witnessing the narrative of the Tahrir we knew and loved become obliterated and rewritten to fit the state rhetoric, and of enduring the vilification of the very activists that brought the Mubarak regime down, ‘The Square’ provides a much-needed reminder of what we won and what was sacrificed. The film is especially important to viewers outside Egypt, whose views of the uprising may be skewed by international media and also to the more cynical Egyptian members of the ‘couch party’, who may have never experienced the inside of Tahrir and subscribe to the propaganda of the Egyptian state media.
Based on three years of filming and following the film’s central characters, Noujaim gives us insider access to life ‘on the ground’ amidst the protesters’ tents, the battle lines and field hospitals, as well as the private homes of the main characters.
There have been so many narratives of Egypt’s recent events, but few have shown the square’s community as loyally as ‘The Square’ does. The film remains true and transparent to the conflicts, revelations and evolution of the three characters: Ahmed Hassan, a young Egyptian who started working as a child to support his family, Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Khalid Abdalla, Egyptian-British actor who flew back to Egypt to be part of the revolution.
The relationships and debates between the three men, as well as their strikingly different socio-economic backgrounds, show different perspectives of the same political events. Particularly, the dynamic between Ahmed and Magdy is the strongest relationship of the film, leaving Khalid to play a secondary character in the narrative.
The continuous arguments between Magdy, a devoted member of the MB, and Ahmed, who resents the Brotherhood’s betrayal of the revolution, is the core of the film. One highly significant scene is where Ahmed and Khalid show Magdy and his son video footage of MB members shooting at protesters during the Itihadeya sit-in of early 2013. Magdy’s disbelief and denial matched only by his son’s shock are a perfect example of the powerful effect of organisational brainwashing on the mass of the Egyptian people, and how political affiliations and loyalties can distort the truth.
Ahmed Hassan is arguably the most important and powerful character in ‘The Square’. His eloquence, resilience and astute interpretation of complex politics provide the clearest narrative. Having lived and worked on the streets, Hassan gives us a far more realistic and grounded view of the events than his peers.
In one scene, he runs to the frontline after pouring Coca-Cola on his face and wrapping a scarf around his mouth. Just ten meters away from a barricade of gun-wielding soldiers, he picks up a rock and flings it at them, completely on his own and unprotected. The shaky camera follows him as he gets shot, and as the screen blacks out, you hear the camera-man calling out Ahmed’s name.
In another scene, the violently shaking camera follows the unnamed cameraman as he flees live bullets and tear gas, only to be confronted and arrested on his doorstep by military police. His frantic breathing, and the heated screaming off-camera, provide one of the most powerful scenes in ‘The Square’, in which the line between the characters and the filmmakers are completely blurred, and it becomes crystal clear just how entrenched the film’s crew were in the events they filmed.
‘The Square’ endeavours to convey the life of Tahrir aside from politics by focusing on Ramy Essam, a pro-revolution singer whose songs criticised the military regime, as well as depicting the different layers of a street mural by graffiti artist Ammar Abo Bakr, one of the most prolific artists throughout the Egyptian revolution. The film also shows the importance of citizen journalism in political protests, particularly in one scene where Khalid holds a public screening of videos showing atrocities committed by the Egyptian police and army.
One of the film’s defects is that it lacks an opposing perspective. While it is wonderful to see Tahrir through the eyes of its most idealistic and resilient supporters, ‘The Square’ would have been even more interesting with the addition of a ‘fulool’ or ‘couch party’ character. The army’s perspective only appears briefly in the scenes after Maspiro, with one slimy, moustached PR mouthpiece and a geriatric general in a poor-fitting suit spewing propaganda; but that’s it.
Aside from Magdy’s relationship with the MB, not much is shown of the organisation. In fact, the later scenes of the film feel rushed and lack the depth of its opening scenes. Recent events such as the June 30 protests are covered fleetingly, while the Rabaa massacre, arguably the most violent incident in Egypt’s recent history, is only briefly mentioned. Evidently, the producers had to stop filming at some point, yet the exclusion of pivotal incidents such as Rabaa leads to a rather frail and botched ending that attempts optimism but is an anti-climax when compared to the film’s powerful intro.
The most frustrating aspect of ‘The Square’ is its representation of women or lack thereof. While the three main characters are introduced in full, Aida El Kashef, a prominent activist and filmmaker, is merely referred to by her first name and is never given equal attention. Other important female activists such as Bothaina Kamel, Egypt’s first female presidential candidate, Mona Seif, founder of the No to Military Trials campaign, and Salma Said of Mosireen, appear briefly and don’t even get a title.
Most importantly, not one mention is made of the horrendous incidences of sexual assault and gang rape that took place in Tahrir Square. The fact that El Kashef was heavily involved in the campaigns to end sexual harassment, and was herself a victim of sexual assault there, makes it even less comprehensible why this subject was completely overlooked aside from a brief shot of the Blue bra girl.
Perhaps this was an editing decision given the exceeding length of the film. However, a few superfluous scenes, such as Ramy Essam’s concerts (unnecessarily long in this reviewer’s opinion) or Ammar’s painting of the mural, could have been cut to make way for this. Given that several female activists have publically stated that ‘The Square’ cameras had filmed them extensively, this shortcoming can hardly be blamed on lack of footage.
Whatever the reason may be, this is one of several aspects that make ‘The Square’ a less than perfect and occasionally one-sided film. That being said, it is the most emotionally powerful film you will see on Tahrir.
Having lived through the tumultuous and emotionally exhaustive events depicted in ‘The Square’, it was impossible to watch the film without feeling like I was being repeatedly punched in the lungs. Scenes such as the Maspiro massacre and the weeping faces of Mina Daniel’s family were especially difficult to watch, even if the dramatic music and close-ups felt a little exaggerated.
Considering the massive amount of footage produced on Tahrir and narratives read, credit must be given to the film’s producers for reviving old narratives and creating emotionally raw scenes. It may not be complete or perfect, but ‘The Square’ is the closest we will get to a representation of life on the inside of Tahrir for those who loved it the most.