In the winter of 2011, Tahrir Square, or Al Midan, entered the history books as the town square in Cairo where Egyptians gathered in great numbers to demand revolutionary change in how their nation was governed. Theirs’ was part of an uprising, dubbed the Arab Spring, that swept across the Arab Middle East and North Africa — a reform movement no less significant in its historic relevance than a similar one, known as the Spring of Nations, that had erupted across much of Europe in 1848 and that brought extensive (though, it later transpired, not lasting) political transformations in several countries on the continent.
It is thus inevitable that an astute filmmaker, recognising the significance of the events taking place at Tahrir Square at the time, would step forward to record the passions and the pathos, the dreams and the expectations, the imagery and the metaphor, encoded in that momentous time. Enter Jihane Nujaim, an Egyptian American documentary filmmaker who was there in the streets to record it all. Called simply, but tellingly, The Square, Nujaim’s film is not only being shown on the wide screen in movie theatres across the US, but last week was nominated for an Oscar.
The 39-year-old Nujaim is no novice cineaste. She studied film at Harvard and has directed The Control Room, about the inner workings of the Al Jazeera network and the highly acclaimed Startup.com. The Square is currently playing in Washington, where Nujaim was born in 1974 — a truly dramatic year in American political culture that heralded the trauma of a disgraced president resigning from office and the end of the turbulent 1960s. And I saw The Square earlier last week, not so much to be edified or entertained (to the extent that a film dealing with a subject matter of such gravity could entertain) but as a reviewer sitting in a darkened theatre, with a flashlight and a steno notebook in hand, ready to critique it all.
Let us say this at the very outset: Cinematically, The Square is mesmersing and poignant, in places emotionally wrenching, not only because of Nujaim’s directorial acumen (which she has in spades), but also because she is presenting us here with the stuff of which history is made of. Here are ordinary folks, secular and pious, liberal and conservative, young and old, men, women, children, in the hundreds of thousands, dodging bullets, tear gas, detention and beatings, but determined, together as a collection, to bring their existence to a full pitch of reality, to negate that feeling of impotence that had characterised their lives. Here at Tahrir Square are the explosive outpourings of a whole generation’s thwarted energies and dreams. After a while, watching it all on the wide screen, you do not have to be an advocate of one side or the other to appreciate the breathtaking drama presented to you.
And Nujaim tells these folks’ story through the voices of a cast of real-life characters, like Ahmad Hassan, the 20-year-old narrator; Khalid Abdullah, an urbane actor whose activist father had been driven into exile; Majdi Ashour, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter who later begins to question the group’s integrity after its candidate, Mohammad Mursi, is elected president; and Rami Essam, who became the protest movement’s popular balladeer.
All well and good. And it all makes for a stirring cinematic experience. However, though The Square is artistically an accomplished documentary, it falters contextually. Nujaim, for example, dwells engagingly on how “people power” brought down a president, but tells us little about the implications of that one phenomenon that continues to elude explanation to this day: Why is it that her protagonists, who had resisted military rule in the winter of 2011, began to embrace it after Mursi was ousted in the summer of 2013? Or why she appears to ignore, gloss over, even tamper with facts when showing the dramatic events that saw the killing of hundreds of demonstrators, following the ouster and incarceration of Mursi?
It is clear that the film was edited selectively to reflect a political bias, which brings us to the issue of whether Nujaim has a political axe to grind. Tell you the truth, if she does, all the power to her. Not unlike their counterparts on the editorial pages of a newspaper, documentary filmmakers are entitled to their opinion. Consider here, as a case in point, Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002), about gun violence in America, and Dror Morel’s more recent The Gatekeepers, (2013) about Shin Beit’s gun violence in Israel.
To be fair, perhaps Nujaim did ot ignore, gloss over or tamper with fats so much as conveniently toy with them. As a viewer, you let that slide because, very simply, you know that the anarchic compulsions of a revolutionary upheaval are a complex affair, not responsive to facile black-and-white explanations. No less complex are crowd dynamics, an issue addressed fully in Elias Canetti’s 1962 iconic work, Crowds and Power, which offers a startling look at the nexus that binds history and philosophy, and explores landmark events in human conduct such as Shiite festivals, civil wars, spontaneous mob gatherings and the like. Once a revolution is triggered, say, by a march on the Bastille in France, a fire in a movie theatre in Iran, or the self-immolation of a vendor in Tunisia, it meshes into a collectivity. Once it all comes to the surface — the discontent, the ennui, the frustration — and these people’s collective energy slips into gear, nothing is clear. It becomes clear only after the fact.
And documentary filmmakers do not document impartially. They slip into the garb and glove of advocates. Fine, I say, all the power to them. So long as we know.
Finally, one question remains to be answered: Why has Egypt, which recently ratified a new constitution that allegedly enshrines the right of citizens to freedom of expression and is poised for new presidential and parliamentary elections, banned the screening of The Square, the first ever Oscar-nominated film by a native Egyptian? Search me.
Fawaz Turki is a journalist, lecturer and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile.