Egypt’s “January 25 revolution” of 2011 hasn’t yet reached a full resolution, and it’s to the credit of Tahrir: Liberation Square that it doesn’t pretend otherwise. A direct-cinema document that unfolds over the 12 days leading up to President Hosni Mubarak’s abdication of power, Stefano Savona’s film provides no heavy doses of political context or expert talking heads; his camera snakes through the tens of thousands marching, milling, and sleeping in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, some draped in the national flag, united in demands for an end to 30 years of autocracy. The you-are-there immediacy carries retroactive echoes, for the American viewer, of the rhythms and rhetoric of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that these protests directly inspired months later (chants include “We’re the people who have to work,” and a lusty English “Go to hell” aimed at Mubarak), but the stakes are deadlier. Protesters tear up and pulverize paving stones to be used as projectiles in running battles with the regime’s allies, with one shot following a woman as she carries a sack of the ammunition to the square’s front line, as government supporters are seen on distant roofs, flinging similarly crude ordnance back at the throngs below. Citizens presumably wounded by security forces are borne through the crowds, some dead; suspects, claiming to be newly released prisoners framed as scapegoats, are seized and questioned in the street. It’s societal upheaval captured in flagrante, chaotic and messy.
Between the pitched battles, Savona eavesdrops on debates between the square’s inhabitants: working-class pilgrims from Alexandria and Suez, students, and some particularly gung-ho and prescient female demonstrators, who wonder how long the army will retain power if, as rumored, they become an “interim” junta to supplant an exiled Mubarak. (The president’s image is barely glimpsed throughout, most notably when a defiant last-stand TV address shown to the Tahrir horde prompts shoe-waving jeers.) Some of the on-camera principals, who are fleetingly and incompletely identified, speculate on the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood (acting in political self-interest, or committed to a non-Islamist state?), but long-term dynamics are put on hold in favor of swiftly toppling the chief of state (a bureaucrat and military officer are quickly shouted down when they attempt to mollify a portion of the crowd). If developments since the winter of 2011—killings of demonstrators by the army, exoneration of many Mubarak lieutenants for deaths at Tahrir, the possible reversal of the ex-dictator’s recent life sentence—temper the feel-good climax of Tahrir, the voices of this revolution shout with the energy of self-discovery and the promise of persistence: “The Egyptians are here!”