Documentaries about recent political/cultural history often have an internal dichotomy that shapes audiences viewing experience: viewers remember the beginning and the end of an event, yet normally miss all of the important details that happen in between. This gives documentaries an important socio-historical function, but at the same time can provoke heartbreaking empathy as viewers watch events unfold towards an inevitable conclusion of which they are already aware.
The Square tells the personal story of the Egyptians who witnessed the revolution of 2011 and the fall of Hosni Mubarak – the president/dictator who held power for 30 years. The three main characters are: Khalid, a British-Egyptian actor who leaves London to join the revolution; Magdy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and a religious democrat; and Ahmed, an articulate activist who believes in fierce and independent opposition to authoritarian rule. There are also a number of other brave and dedicated men and women from different backgrounds who all predominantly and profoundly agree that an informed electorate should decide the future of Egypt.
The film begins in February with the aftermath of the leader’s deposition as thousands of people spontaneously celebrate in the streets. The sincerity and solidarity amongst the people who have crowded into Tahrir Square is exhilarating to witness, the atmosphere euphoric as the people chant and sing songs about democracy, justice and the rule of law – yet anyone watching who followed the events as they happened knows that this feeling is premature… this is the heartbreaking empathy mentioned above.
After Mubarak is overthrown, the army steps in to take over the countries affairs and the people return to their homes. Yet, after a number of months of little progress people begin to return to the square to set up tents and make demands by putting pressure on the generals. Tahrir Square starts to become as symbolic as Tiananmen two decades before it as activists are forcibly removed and trees and fake grass symbolically replace the tents – the communication war has begun over the race for the successor.
To summarise the nuance of the period would do the film and the lives of the Egyptian people a disservice, but it tells a harrowing narrative of how the people are twice betrayed: once by the army and again by militant Islamists who insist on a constitution based on religion instead of secularism. The growing and disturbing rhetoric on the different sides of the political divide show deep ideological disagreements as one group of people chant ‘justice’ and ‘freedom’ and the other group shout ‘faith’ and ‘determination’.
The film has some disturbing moments where protestors are attacked with real bullets and armoured vehicles, as well as showing damning evidence that the brutality that was unleashed by the army/police was facilitated by American weapons and ammunition. A gas canister is acerbically referred to as a ‘gift’ from The West at one point.
One thing that is interesting about the film is its overt reliance on new media to tell its story, which is itself heavily reliant on social media. Some of the footage from the film is filmed on smartphones and clearly edited on MacBooks, which are shown onscreen with people editing footage for the film, in the film. American commentators proudly congratulated Twitter for facilitating the ‘Arab Spring’, yet did not pressure the mainstream media to focus more on the unfolding horrors. In this scenario, no news is not good news.
One of the tragedies that is eventually realised by the revolutionaries is that they are a powerful force when it comes to saying ‘No’ to an authoritarian threat, but they struggle to convince others of the alternatives – a prophetic parallel to the Occupy movement in America and Europe as a result of the unrest in the Middle East that struggled to have a lasting impact on the financial sectors.
The film has a cautious but positive ending, and watching the film gives viewers hope in the power of democracy. But the haunting reality is that the film will always serve as a reminder to an (ongoing) era of bloodshed as well as a powerful statement of optimism for the future.
Learn more about the film here