There was a time when the word documentary conjured up endless shots of talking heads strung together with a voice-over and shown on PBS. Although topical and informative, they were often boring. I dreaded documentaries and if you were a documentary filmmaker the chances that your film would get any theatrical distribution was next to zilch. Then, there was a turnaround. The documentary became a doc. And the doc became cool and the doc became hot at the box office.
Jehane Noujaim’s The Square is an explosively hot documentary that will win awards and probably be a box office success. It is filmmaking at its best. In the winter of 2011 protesting Egyptians were given cameras to record the events in Tahrir Square. Images uploaded to the Internet went viral. When an image of a bloodied young protestor dragged by security forces appeared on Facebook, thousands of outraged Egyptians flooded Tahrir Square.
Noujaim, an Egyptian American, and her crew were alongside the protesters. After Mubarak is toppled and most people leave Tahrir Square, Noujaim and her camera remain. Her film The Square captures the ebb and flow of two years of Egyptian protest and change and offers the viewer a powerful picture of the evolving Arab Spring.
But this is not CNN. Noujaim digs deeply and it is the way she crafts her film that is amazing. To give the film structure she ties the protests to ongoing interviews with five Egyptians. Most are liberal revolutionaries but one is a dissident member of the Muslim Brotherhood who has once been jailed. Their interviews follow a roughly chronological order of events. As events unfold, it is their voices that express the disbelief and joy when Mubarak finally steps down after thirty years of martial law. You hear their fear when the military steps in to fill the vacuum. A new President is elected. Religious Muslims are elated. Liberal Egyptians sense the revolution is compromised.
Noujaim tries to cover all angles. We see the missteps and the anger between the factions. We even hear briefly from the police and military leadership. Dreams of freedom, religious devotion, plays for power, young people ready to die for ideals are there for you to see. At the end you marvel at the passion of it all.
The Square was shown at Sundance as a work in progress given the rapidly enfolding
events in Egypt. Noujaim and her crew returned to Cairo and she screened her newly edited film at The 51st New York Film Festival. At her press conference, she announced that while the situation in Egypt remains fluid, she would not make further changes to the film. She also prognosticated that democracy will develop in Egypt with a separation of religion and state.
The Square will open at the Film Forum in New York City on October 25th and recently screened at the Carmel Art & Film Festival.
Barbara Castro is a Family Mediator and is currently working on a film project to introduce divorcing families to the benefits of mediation rather than litigation. She reviews films at the New York Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival for The WIP.