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If the American Revolution had been captured on video, would our country look different today? That idea looms over Egypt and The Square, a gripping new documentary that explores the Egyptian revolution of 2011. While it’s significant as a historical document, The Square, simply by existing, also reminds us of how new media has begun to transform the way the world witnesses war and oppression.
This part you know: Fed up with the oppression of then-President Hosni Mubarak and his vicious secret police, thousands of young Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square in January 2011 and refused to leave until Mubarak was given the boot. The Square, directed by Control Room’s Jehane Noujaim, hones in on three of them: enthusiastic activist Ahmed; Magdy, a father of two and member of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian actor (star of The Kite Runner) whose English fluency makes him a helpful spokesman for the revolution.
By focusing on people from such varied socioeconomic and religious backgrounds—though women don’t get sufficient attention—The Square captures what made the Egyptian Revolution so remarkable: that citizens with conflicting beliefs came together to try to create a democratic society. But the film also shows how the revolution fell apart. After Mubarak’s ouster, what follows is a sad and slow destruction of the bonds forged by revolution. As the Muslim Brotherhood makes secret deals with the military and eventually captures both the parliament and the presidency, only to continue the worst abuses of the Mubarak regime, Magdy finds himself torn between his desire for change and his loyalty to the Brotherhood (which the military eventually removed from power). Meanwhile, Ahmed’s journey is the most heartbreaking; at one point, he loses his voice from pleading with his fellow protesters to keep up the fight. He seems to age 20 years over the course of the film.
Although Noujaim may have put herself in harm’s way to make The Square, she leaves herself out of the picture. There are few editorial flourishes; the camera tells a brutal truth, from the images of bruised and broken bodies to the crushed spirit of the revolutionaries. As the boundaries of documentary film seem to expand every day—last year’s Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing are recent examples—films like this continue to remind those in power not to underestimate the person with a camera in the right place at the right time.