Revolution as change is never easy. It does not happen overnight. The societal foundation needs to be ripped apart so a new cornerstone can be set, an arduous and oftentimes extremely violent process. The most well known is America’s own Revolution, which lasted roughly 20 years and culminated in a bloody five-year war. But America’s lasting liberation is a historical outlier. Most are not nearly so successful.
Egypt is currently three years into its own revolution with mixed results, and Netflix’s new documentary The Square strikingly captures this growing crusade from the ground floor. Things kick off in earnest in January 2011 when protestors take to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, leading to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s resignation following a brutal 30-year reign. People weep in the streets. Cheers and smiles are everywhere. Yet few realize their struggle is only beginning.
The Muslim Brotherhood quickly steps in and fills the power vacuum, but little actually changes. They abuse power in much the same manner as before. Real democracy and freedom from oppression remain elusive. People continue to be arrested and protestors shot at in the streets.
This leads to another massive showing in Tahrir Square in the summer of 2013, bigger than before and one of the largest demonstrations in human history. President Mohamed Morsi is replaced by military rule, conditions remain dire and the cycle continues.
Despite all the political upheaval and a constant state of chaos, The Square to its benefit remains relatively focused on three main characters amidst the Tahrir-related activities. The main voice is Ahmed Hassan, a twentysomething working-class man very passionate and optimistic about Egypt’s quest for social change.
We also follow British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla (The Kite Runner, United 93), an outspoken activist who gives interviews to U.S. news stations and posts YouTube videos chronicling what is happening. The final person is Magdy Ashour, a close friend of Hassan and member of the Muslim Brotherhood who is conflicted between supporting the cause and the questionable methods the Brotherhood employs.
Documentarian Jehane Noujaim, who was raised in Egypt but has lived in Boston since the ‘90s, masterfully constructs all this footage into a harrowing and unforgettable experience. It immediately drops you right into what is happening on the street level, and never lets go. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before.
Many people put in years of hard work and risked their very livelihoods to get Egypt’s story more widely known on a global scale, and are to be commended for their efforts. The Square received the prestigious audience awards at both Sundance and Toronto, as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. It’s one of those rare films that needs to be seen by as many people as possible.
Egyptian politics remains a very convoluted maze currently, with no clear end point in sight. Thus, there’s no way for it to be effectively communicated or solved in a single two-hour film. It will probably be decades from now until the revolution itself can even be judged a success or failure.
What The Square is invaluable at is providing a slice of insight into Egypt’s current state by matching human faces with what we’ve seen on the news. Tahrir comes to symbolize the very soul of Egypt and those fighting for it, and Noujaim posits genuine hope the revolution’s initial dreams will one day be fulfilled.
As the main character Hassan beautifully closes, “We’re not looking for a leader as much as we’re looking for a conscience. What is a leader anyway? Are they going to offer solutions from the heavens? They won’t do that. The thing is, if we are able to create this conscience within the society, we’ll be able to find a good president. We are not looking for a leader to rule us. Because everyone who went to Tahrir is a leader. We are looking for a conscience.”