An on-the-ground document of recent history, The Square follows a variety of revolutionaries as they take to Cairo’s Tahrir Square from 2011-2013 to protest the rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, then the military, and finally the newly elected President Mohamed Morsi. Jehane Noujaim’s documentary resounds with both intimacy and immediacy as it charts the rebellious efforts of three friends: twentysomething Ahmed Hassan, who preaches social unity and freedom; Kite Runner actor Khalid Abdalla, who advocates reshaping the underlying government apparatus as a means of affecting real, lasting change; and Magdy Ashour, whose allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood (and their goals of creating an Islamic state) is complicated by his support for nonviolent and equitable rule of law.
Gaining its power from its proximity to the chaotic events in and around its central location, The Square evokes—in aerial shots of the Tahrir Square’s masses calling for Mubarak’s ouster, and later kneeling and praying in unison—the vital role that such geographic centers play in bringing citizens together, as well as in fostering political and cultural upheaval and transformation. Likewise, director Noujaim’s handheld footage amid clashing protestors and military, which at one point includes the cameraman suffering taser assaults himself, has a visceral intensity that captures the lethal brutality that its subjects, and millions of others, potentially faced during these demonstrations.
In YouTube videos of torture victims and caught-in-the-moment footage of military tanks running over civilians, The Square refuses to sugarcoat its material, thereby stirringly conveying the anarchic and terrifying experience of being in the center of Cairo over the course of these two turbulent years. While a more detailed discussion of the period’s behind-the-scenes political maneuvering would have provided welcome context for the arguments made by Ahmed, Magdy, and Khalid, what emerges is a blistering portrait of rebellion against social discord, marginalization and oppression, and a call to arms for true democratic ideals of dignity, justice, and fairness. That true victory and harmony remain elusive in this country, which is as divided as ever before, and now on the precipice of civil war between those for and against turning Egypt into an Islamic state, is made plain by a coda detailing the post-Morsi fates of Ahmed and Magdy—a final note that lends the film’s plea for a better future resound with equal measures of hope, fear, and despair.