The Square ★★★★½

Part of 30 Countries 2018. Today: Egypt!
Also 52 films by women 2018: 24/52.

If you want a perspective on the Muslim world that's sharply different from what you get on the nightly news, Jehane Noujaim is one of the best directors to follow. Her films come out far too infrequently, although when you see the amount of work that goes into each one it's no wonder. The Square might be her best work to date, an astonishingly courageous document of the Tahrir Square uprisings that got rid of two Presidents in quick succession. It's intensely sympathetic towards the people who gathered to protest first against the autocratic Hosni Mubarak, then against the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. It's also clear-eyed about why they failed to bring freedom to Egypt.

At first, Tahrir Square emerges as a kind of carnivalesque space, a place where the existing social order can be easily overturned. One interviewee says that, although her politics are more secular, she felt like there wasn't much difference between herself and the Muslim Brotherhood in the Square; they both seemed to be thinking the same things, forging new alliances. This feeling of community did not survive Mubarak's ousting. The leaderless resistance model that had made the protests so hard to quash also made it impossible for them to form an interim government. While most of the protesters were still debating what kind of constitution they would assemble, the Muslim Brotherhood were sliding comfortably into power with their well-rehearsed vision for a new Egypt.

Noujaim is very good at delineating the fault-lines in Egyptian society. It's interesting how some of the rhetoric here, in a country a hair away from civil war, is similar to the rhetoric spewed in the West by pundits and politicians who are too sheltered and too smug to understand its dangers. At one point, the Brotherhood start chanting something along the lines of giving Egypt back to the Muslims, to which other protesters angrily counter that they're Muslims too. Here, The Square becomes a better study of group dynamics than Ruben Östlund's film of the same name. The Muslim Brotherhood members quickly back down from their more inflammatory stances when it's them against a crowd of secularists, but at their own rallies there are no such checks and balances.

I've seen a few people criticise Noujaim's film as biased, but I don't think it is. For all her sympathies are clearly with the protesters she's perfectly comfortable in the back seat of a limousine, giving a military official chance to explain his version of events uninterrupted. I was unnerved as a Briton to hear him cite David Cameron's response to the 2011 English riots as his personal template for quelling protests, considering that the Egyptian crisis ended with the imposition of a military junta which remains in place to this day. Structurally, too, the film is a suitably diverse assembly of imagery from different sources; news broadcasts here, mobile phone clips there, what appears to be footage from a military helicopter being dazzled by protesters with laser pens. Noujaim distinguishes her own footage through careful composition, hot colours and occasional tilt-shift focus. It's an impressive, cared-for look that only falters when she's running from machine-gun fire, which even the most committed aesthete would have to admit is a forgivable lapse.

Graham liked this review