Two words uttered in the dark—”What happened?”—open The Square, Jehane Noujaim’s powerful, exacting depiction of Egypt’s struggle for meaningful change. Several documentaries on the country’s 2011 uprising, including Uprising and Tahrir: Liberation Square, rushed to answer that question, and suffered from a certain shortsightedness as a result. Noujaim takes a longer view, following activists from their early 2011 jubilation, through the disillusions and divisions of military and then Muslim Brotherhood rule, toward the events of this past August, when the Egyptian Army ousted President Morsi in the wake of one of the largest protests in human history.
Control Room director Noujaim begins where previous Tahrir documentaries have ended: with footage familiar from news coverage of the Arab Spring, in this case of joyful Egyptians singing of love, freedom, and democracy. She captures as well the terrific, emboldening shock of a people who found the will to meet each other, ultimately by the hundreds of thousands, in the streets. But the international media soon pulled out, some telling horrific stories of the chaos; Tahrir Square emptied and the army moved in, declaring martial law.
Noujaim tracks the participation of several subjects in subsequent, bloody re-occupations of the square, including actor Khalid Abdalla, along with a young revolutionary named Ahmed and a Muslim Brotherhood member named Magdy, whose relationship provides the film’s strongest thread. Ahmed, focused, defiant, and well-spoken, radiates charisma. He is a revolutionary discovering revolution as he goes, learning that words like “freedom” and “democracy” prove deceptively breezy concepts, more difficult to enact for requiring not just regime and constitutional change but a unified sense of conscience. Magdy is older, sadder, more thoughtful; a father of four, he was tortured by the Mubarak regime. Though under their provision, Magdy can’t always agree with the Brotherhood, who find in Egypt’s turmoil an opportunity to gain political power. Ahmed and Magdy clash bitterly as the Army and then Morsi’s henchmen wreak violent, often fatal havoc on the protesters. They also maintain an intelligent, revealing dialog, returning as habitually to the real things as to a kind of Tahrir Square of the mind, where politics end and their respective ideals begin, and upon which real social reforms might take shape.
“As long as there’s a camera, the revolution will continue,” Ahmed says in 2011. Protesters hoist smartphones, not placards, and YouTube is their ally. Noujaim shows us the kind of horrors activists have suffered and witnessed in unconscionable numbers. Still, they return to the square. Confronted with the footage, the photos, the autopsy reports, Egypt’s leaders shrug. To see this in action is to understand that denying reality is a central tactic of mass oppression. To have their reality simply and consistently denied, absorbed, and erased by power will drive a people mad.
The Square moves quickly, its reams of raw footage complemented by fleet and skillful editing. Egypt’s change is painfully gradual, and the activists have recalibrated for a decades-long fight. For now, Ahmed and the others find solace in their country’s reignited spirit, and in the streets, where the kids are playing a new game they call “Protest.”