Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Square


Jehane Noujaim 

THE SQUARE               B             
Egypt  USA  (95 mi)  2013  d:  Jehane Noujaim            Official site

It’s incredibly important that this very crucial moment of history in Egypt was written by Egyptians.  Egypt has been colonized by every imaginable power over the years, and they’ve always had this concept of the pharaoh that needs to be broken.  We don’t have these stories of the Rosa Parks who sat in the back of the bus, we don’t have these celebrated individuals who have been able to change their country.  So we as filmmakers felt it was very important to follow these very local heroes.
—Jehane Noujaim

From the same filmmaker who directed Control Room (2004), a documentary highlighting media bias, in particular the cooperation between the media and the military in the United States during the March 2003 American invasion of Iraq, a war seen very differently from a military filtered American press than through the lens of the Al Jazeera television network, which includes an Arabic point of view.  While the director is an Egyptian-American woman raised in Kuwait and Cairo before moving to Boston in 1990, eventually graduating from Harvard, here she turns her attention to events leading up to the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, a massive uprising taking place on the streets of Cairo over several weeks in February 2011, including daily gatherings at Tahrir Square captured on smartphones or videorecorders, becoming an on-the-ground document of recent history, culminating with the resignation of sitting President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011.  Seen as part of the Middle East’s reaction to the aftermath of the Iraq War, where a wave of dictators were toppled in the Arab Spring when the region denounced absolute monarchies, human rights violations, and political corruption, advancing an agenda of pro-democratic reforms.  The immediate reaction in Egypt was a nationwide state of euphoria, having lived under a state of emergency for 31 years, where the brutally repressive police tactics routinely included torture of suspected dissidents, especially Islamic fundamentalists, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood.  In many ways, the film is reminiscent of the more harrowing Anders Østergaard film called Burma VJ (2008), documenting another repressive Fascist regime run by military Generals, capturing massive street protests in Burma when any citizen caught with a camera or videorecorder was subject to arrest, beatings, and torture, yet underground video journalists secretly recorded the street scenes anyway, eventually smuggling images out to the rest of the world.         

Euphoria in the streets soon turns to grave concerns, however, as the military continues their ruthless practices, and filling the void of military fascism is the religious fascism advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood, where they are the only organization seen developing a credible political party, renouncing the concerns for social justice, pushing instead for quick democratic elections on a strictly Islamist platform.  We follow these developments through the eyes of several street participants who largely remain friends throughout, notably Ahmed Hassan, a young pro-democracy demonstrator, an advocate of non-violence who fights against police brutality while believing in a free and unified nation, Magdy Ashour, a savagely tortured prisoner who is also an Islamist follower of the Muslim Brotherhood, often conflicted by his own support of non-violence, British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdella, who starred in THE KITE RUNNER (2007), who now perceives himself more of an instrumental photo-journalist, and Ramy Essam, whose free flowing lyrics provide the musical inspiration to the massive demonstrations, literally inventing the musical soundtrack for the revolutionary sentiment on the streets.  All factions were united at the ousting of Mubarak, but splintered quickly afterwards.  Ahmed is a likable kid, full of brimming idealsm, whose mood shifts constitute the shifting tone of the film, as he and others start to have second thoughts about leaving the solidarity of numbers in “the Square,” as police quickly disburse those that try to return, and there’s a developing animosity between the freedom lovers and the religious Islamists who wish to redefine the terms of change through a religious law and order platform that often negates the rights of others.  When Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood Party wins the Presidential elections, hitting the ground running faster than all competitors, having an organization already in place, the country becomes even more divided, as they write a highly restrictive, socially conservative constitution that proves extremely unpopular, while also trying to exert control over the military, where to many, Morsi is seen as expanding the autocratic rule to levels worse than under Mubarak.  

Using a cinéma vérité style of chronicling rapidly changing events on the ground, these familiar characters become a stream-of-conscious narrative voice, but events remain confusing, as these jumbled images are often seen without clarifying context, where Khalid happens upon YouTube footage of tanks literally driving over street protesters, leaving many dead bodies in their wake.  While Ahmed and Magdy argue among themselves about who’s to blame, Morsi’s government is portrayed as indifferent to the consequences.  Ahmed’s mood sinks to its lowest when the military starts firing live bullets into gathering crowds of largely peaceful protesters, who fight back only with rocks and cellphone video coverage in a David and Goliath confrontation, where it’s hard to grasp just who’s in charge, as utter chaos describes the pandemonium on the streets, where protesters seen with smartphones or videorecorders are quickly attacked.  One of the more chilling instances is seeing footage from one protester just as the police attack and can be seen electronically tazing him, where the stream of footage comes to an abrupt stop.  While the one constant throughout is the police using excessively lethal force, military support for Morsi galvanizes against him, forcing him to resign as well on July 3, 2013, once again leaving an interim military rule.  With seemingly no one in charge, this transitional aftermath is one of the bloodiest, when a month after the Morsi resignation, the single worst mass killing in recent Egyptian history takes place on August 13, 2013 when military forces kill a thousand Muslim Brotherhood protesters staging a sit-in.  Despite the massive protests for change over the course of several years, this horrific incident seems to have been conducted with a large measure of popular support.  While this film shows the fluctuations at street level through YouTube posts and social media, which gets out to the West, very little of this is explained to the viewer, which can feel confusing as outcomes are never clear, but this does parallel the paucity of political leadership throughout, where a crucial chapter in Egyptian history has also not been shown to the Egyptian people. 

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