The Square ★★★½

Part of my African Safari/Nollywood Challenge

This documentary from director Jehane Noujaim depicts events that comprised the so-called Egyptian Crisis of 2011-14. It opens with a blackout in Cairo in January 2011. A man named Ahmed Hassan lights a candle and says, "This is normal." He's then interviewed in daylight, telling how he paid for school by working from the age of eight, selling lemons in the street. He saw no hope for the future. He blamed President Hosni Mubarak and his regime, which claimed emergency law powers for 30 years and ran the country as a dictatorship.

Then, Ahmed describes the day that he and other young people marched to Tahrir Square, demanding justice and an end to corruption. The police tried to subdue them, which only made them more angry. More protesters joined their ranks. Stones thrown at police lines were met with tear gas canisters. Footage from the conflict is shown along with Mubarak's televised response, calling for order, as thousands occupy "The Square."

That was the beginning of the "sit-in" to end the regime. Muslims and Christians joined hands and voices to decry the injustice, poverty and ignorance foisted upon them. Ahmed introduces us to some of the principle revolutionaries -- recently repatriated Khalid Abdalla, a noted actor who was born abroad; Muslim Brotherhood leader Magdy Ashour; popular folk singer Ramy Essam; and female activist Aida Elkashef. They clamor for "bread, freedom and social justice."

By February, the occupation of the square as drawing support from certain factions within the Egyptian military and pressure on Mubarak from other nations to settle the dispute peacefully. As a result, the President stepped down. The announcement was met by cheers and fireworks. The sit-in became a massive party. And with promises from the army to institute reforms, the protesters vacated the square and went home.

But by spring, it was clear that the regime was still in control and emergency law had not be lifted. So once again, the people too to the streets, making Tahrir Square their headquarters. We see scenes of life in tented city erected by the revolutionaries -- feeding each other, playing street soccer, singing songs, and always talking about the need for complete reform.

To Noujaim's credit, she also got interviews with the Army's spokesperson, General Hamdy Bekheit, as well as Major Haytham, who both insist that the military are on the side of the people. But the secret police continue to carry out surveillance and the protesters fear leaving the relative "safety" of the square. They refuse to leave, even under threat of being shot. That's because, as Ahmed says, trusting the army isn't fully possible till the old guard has changed.

Then come the tanks and the troops, clearing away the tents. They are aided by thugs carrying sticks. Ramy and many others are arrested, taken to the Egyptian Museum and severely beaten. Now we see the welts and scars on his back, but media was blacked out and none of this made the news on BBC or CNN. Similarly, Magdy was hauled in by the secret police, interrogated and subjected to electric shocks. That when the leaders of the revolution fight back using social media, digital images and the power of global connectivity to show the world the truth.

But the military starts its own PR campaign, using traditional mass media, sodding Tahrir Square and putting up billboards declaring "love and respect for the martyrs of the revolution." The secret police arrest continue and military trials decide the fate of prisoners. It seems that the only victor in the toppling of Mubarak was the status quo, so once again, in the summer, the people return to occupy Tahrir Square, the symbol of Egyptian dignity. The tents go back up and the turnout is bigger than ever.

The movement, however, has rifts. Many within the Muslim Brotherhood seek Islamic rule for Egypt. Others accuse the Brotherhood of trying to hijack the revolution for their own political gain and colluding with the government security forces. Indignant and claiming the continued protest are harming the nation's economy, leaders of the Islamic faction order their members to leave the square. Magdy, for one, doesn't agree, but he is loyal and obedient, so he goes.

Soon after, the military rolls in and reclaims the square again. But thus is revolution, and by the fall, with no change in sight, the protests resume and intensify. They try to take over the state television building and are repelled by barbed wire, clubs, gunfire and assault vehicles. Autopsies are suppressed to keep families from knowing their loved ones were shot. The phrase "Martyr of the Revolution" becomes increasingly common.

Then, the fourth time the people occupy Tahrir Square, the peaceful aspect of the protest is lost. In Ahmed's words, "It became a war, not a revolution." Rock throwing is met by volleys of live ammunition. You cannot watch this and not feel deeply for the protesters, who are now branded traitors by the media. And the military insists they will hold free elections to look like the "good guys," in full knowledge that it will mean no regime change and the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, who stand to gain in winter elections ... and they do.

In May of 2012, Presidential elections are held, but with only two candidates -- an Islamic fundamentalist put up by the Brotherhood and the last Prime Minister appointed by Mubarak. It's not much of a choice for those like Ahmed who see whoever succeeds as a new face painted on old tyranny. Then, when Dr. Mohamed Morsi of the Brotherhood wins by a slim margin, many revolutionaries say they'll give him 100 days to prove he's different, else they will resume protests.

But after 150 days, little changes. In fact, by 2013 Morsi drafts a constitution to favor Muslim rule and grant himself unchecked powers. The revolutionaries see the writing on the wall and know that they need to act against this "New Egyptian Pharaoh." Once more, they take to Tahrir Square with tents, guitars, chants and demands for a new, equitable constitution. Morsi responds by inciting his loyal Muslim followers to oust the protesters. And they do. And it is bloody.

The next step is a general strike in the summer of 2013. This time, however, it's not just a gathering at Tahrir Square. millions of Egyptians took to the street. Christians and Muslims alike called for an end to the Pharaoh's regime. It made the Mubarak protests look tiny by comparison. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood holds a counter sit-in. Violence is feared. To avert disaster, the military comes forward once again, relieves Morsi of power, suspends the current constitution and announces new elections will be held. But clashes occurred thereafter and some civilians died, perhaps Magdy among them.

The first version of this film premiered at Sundance in January 2013 and won the Audience Award for World Cinema in the documentary category. Noujaim updated the ending to include the events of the following summer, and the film won the Kalba People's Choice Award in the documentary category at Toronto in the fall. It was subsequently nominated for the Academy Award in the category Best Documentary Feature. It's an impressive piece of work, to be sure.

Film #42 among my 52 Films by Women 2017

TajLV liked these reviews