Opens Fri., Jan. 17 at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated. 108 minutes.
One of 15 docs on the Oscar shortlist (the nominations come tomorrow), Jehane Noujaim’s The Square is both timely and behind the current news cycle. And that’s not to fault the Egyptian-American filmmaker’s brave, total, immersive commitment in a fluid and sometimes dangerous situation. She spent over two years following the protests and battles at Tahrir Square, which erupted in January 2011. No one, including her, had any idea where events would lead. Her perspective is mostly ground-level, following a half-dozen charismatic revolutionaries, some of whom speak English. There’s no history of Egypt before the protests, almost no news footage or outside comment, and much raw video that we see being shaped into YouTube dispatches from a liberal media room where Noujaim is embedded, high above the square. (The view down at the swarm, especially at night, is breathtaking.)
“The battle isn’t just in the rocks and stones,” says British actor Khalid. “The battle is in the images and the stories.” You might think that Noujaim (Startup.com, Control Room), a Harvard-educated media type, would be in full agreement. But the longer The Square goes on, the more we see how rocks and stones (and tear gas and rubber bullets) really do matter—and how they shape the images and stories. (But the Koran trumps everything, including YouTube.) One of Noujaim’s cameramen, Ahmed, is a central figure in the protests, making speeches, debating skeptics, and tossing stones at the police. He’s the one closest to the Arab Street, and we can see him grow exhausted from the cycle of taking the square, being beaten back, and returning months later. The initial euphoria eventually runs into a brick wall called the Muslim Brotherhood, here represented by the warm-hearted family man Magdy.
Absent a narrator, lacking many explanatory intertitles or graphics, The Square’s granular approach makes it a very partisan doc. Noujaim is on the side of the revolutionaries—who wouldn’t be?—without ever trying to summon a thesis from all the exhilarating, power-to-the-people process of revolution. To be fair, that may be impossible. Her film is an invaluable chronicle of an historic moment, but it’s only a moment during Egypt’s very long, fraught history. From the pharaohs to the colonialists, from Sadat and Mubarak to Morsi and beyond, regime change seems to be the only constant. And, says Ahmed with a smile, “We’re waiting for the next one.”