Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Sep 24, 2013 4:06 pm 
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The youth revolution of 25 January 2011 when hope was still high

Noujaiim's documentary, The Square, referring to Meidan at-Tahrir ("Liberation Square") in Cairo, is an astonishingly warm and emotional film even considering the intensity and significance of the tumultuous events it chronicles. This is due to some dedicated work by a handful of photographers, including the director, and their choice to highlight the experiences of a small set of people they met in Tahrir, some of whom became friends across political and social lines in the surge of democratic, revolutionary feeling that swept through Egypt after January 2011.

These people are unfailingly moving and articulate, even, and most notably, Ahmed Hassan, a young man who was virtually a child of the streets selling lemonade, who hails from a poor family living in the bast, popular Cairo district of Shubra. Inspired by the love of freedom, democracy, and revollution the removal of the dictator Hosni Mubarak awakens in him, Ahmad becomes a charismatic leader in the Square. What you won't entirely find here are what following the chosen personalities takes space from. This includes a full account of all the events in the Square itself over the two-year period roughly covered, a blow-by-blow history of all the political manoeuvring that take place on all sides, or an analysis of the deep government of the military headed by the SCAF (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) that remains more in control than ever since the ouster of Muhammad Morsi, Mubarak's elected successor as Egypt's president.

Ahmed Hassan -- ordinary name -- is the star of this film, and reportedly he has been drafted into the Egyptian army. In a Q&A after a screening of the film for press and industry in connection with the New York Film Festival, September 2013, Noujaim said that the next film would be Ahmed in the army. If this is true it would be remarkable. There are, of course, many other people in The Square. The American-educated Egyptian Karim Amer was setting up opportunities for the youth to debate and contribute on the internet, and he met Jehane and became her producer. Khaled Abdalla, star of The Kite Runner, was a British-Egyptian actor long resident with his 70's activist father in London, who returned to his Cairo family and rediscovered his Egyptian identity and became deeply involved in the revolution. Magdy Ashour is a longtime Muslim Brotherhood member in his 40's who followed the Brotherhood's orders early on, but later, through the democratic exchanges of the Square, went through a transformation -- and also became a friend of both Ahmed Hassan and Khaled Abdalla. Ragia Omran, in her 30's, is a human rights lawyer who fights constantly for the freeing of political prisoners and protestors during the various demonstrations and repressive responses to them. Ramy Essam is a handsome singer-songwriter who emerged as the musical voice of the Square; he was brutally beaten and tortured with electricity in the Cairo Museum by policie. Aida El Kashef is a young woman filmmaker who was involved in the Square revolution very early and continues to fight against the demonization of the revolutionaries and protestors by establishment media.

These seven, but especially Ahmed, Khaled and Magdy, are the contributors to the Egyptian revolution's collective voice that The Square's photographers tirelessly follow and whose emotions and ideas are threaded throughout the film. This is the essence of what makes this film significant. When Mubarak resigns, we see Ahmed's joyous face. When Morsi wins, we see his look of deep disappointment, and we have heard his explanation of why this election is wrong. When he runs into danger in the streets and will be wounded in the head, the camera runs after him. Sometimes the cameras also go to this group's houses to follow their reunions and debates with their families.

Mubarak fell. Then the Brotherhood cooperated with the military to push through early elections, which put them in power in the parliament and led to the narrow victory of Morsi. After a year and a half huge demonstrations led to the resignation of Morsi, the elected president. A new general took over, al-Sissi instead of Tantawi. Morsi supporters began fierce protests, and the brutal repression of the Brotherhood began that now continues today. This film stops before those had reached their worst stage.

Once the voice of Sharif Abdfel Kouddous, the gifted young Egyptian Nation Fellow and Democracy Now! correspondent, is heard commenting on the political situation then developing. Sometimes I wish he and other commentators were more often heard from to describe the larger picture. But this film is best at its depiction of the main events of the first two and half years of the revolution from a personal point of view as experienced by this handpicked group of people. Larger forces, other important people, are not included, and perhaps to do so would have unduly detracted from the emotion and the momentum of the film.

The Square/Al Midan, 104 mins., debuted at Sundance and was shown at Toronto, and was enthusiastically received at both festivals. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, Sept. 2013. Opens theatrically in NYC (Film Forum) 25 Oct.

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