Netflix film review: The Square (documentary)
Ivan Radford | On 10, Jan 2014
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Cast: Khalid Abdalla, Ahmed Hassan
Watch online: Netflix UK
“Only we can tell our stories,” says one protestor near the start of The Square, as they erect an open-air cinema in the middle of Cairo. Then we go back to a frenzied montage of bullets, chants and passionate addresses to camera. This is a story of chaos. This is what a revolution looks like – live.
Jehane Nohaime’s documentary follows the Egyptian protests in 2011, which overthrew President Mubarak. We join the protestors as they stand in Tahrir Square. Some of them are young (Ahmed). Some are singers (Ramy). One of them is an actor, Khalid Abdalla (star of The Kite Runner and United 93). All of them are idealists, drawn to The Square, a place of pride, where “a tent and a blanket can solve your problems”.
Cutting between shots among the crowd and overhead panoramas of The Square, Jehane captures that unity with a breathtaking elation. “We were all reflections of each other,” says Ahmed – and you really feel they are. Muslims. Coptic Christians. Soldiers. It doesn’t matter: they are all Egyptians ridding themselves of a regime.
The contributions fly thick and fast. It’s a whirl of faces. Jehane doesn’t bother with exposition or background details. This isn’t the History Channel; this is actually happening.
It’s that immediacy that gives The Square its impact. Vox pops are instantaneous, not crafted in hindsight to form a narrative. A team of nine people expertly edit footage from YouTube, her own cameras and other sources. We’re not told where the striking images come from: we just watch the raw violence, the celebrations, the vivid flags, the intense discussions, all seemingly streamed in real-time.
The film rides along on emotion more than anything else; as Mubarak steps down, the joy is tangible. When the emergency military rulers start to fire on the population they once stood shoulder to shoulder with, the betrayal is a punch to the gut – especially when the officers in charge deny accusations, even as bullet wounds are shown to them on camera.
It takes one year for Egypt to organise parliamentary elections, only for the Muslim Brotherhood to win. Deflated, Ahmed and friends discuss how they failed to establish their own political representation. Interviewed repeatedly on international news, Khalid Abdalla is the one to bring perspective to the table: “Politics is not the same as a revolution,” he reminds them. “You have to make compromises.”
That’s exactly what Jehane’s movie is: uncompromising. Like its heroes, it refuses to sit down. It seethes with energy. Even after screening at Sundance, the director felt it necessary to go back and continue filming the unfinished story as it unfolded. The final chapter is what elevates this film from arresting to astonishing; an almost tragic document of idealism in the undeposable face of corruption and power.
At the heart of it sits Ahmed, a handsome, passionate figure; a poster child for revolt. He attempts to reconcile with a Muslim-supporting friend, Magby but, like him, The Square is equally unwilling to choose a side further than “Egypt”. It rushes through the cycle of conflict without a thought for the bigger practical picture; accompanied by H. Scott Salinas and Jonas Colstrup’s stirring music, things are painted in simple, stark colours, like the topical paintings Jehane cuts to throughout. Even when Ahmed is injured, he doesn’t stop fighting for his beliefs. As others make compromises and military juntas take control once again, he refuses to give up – almost annoyingly so.
The Square captures that hope and puts it on screen; it’s a human document more than a historical one, and all the more powerful for it.
“Only we can tell our stories,” the protestors say. And The Square does tell their story – as it happened, and as it continues to happen now. Urgent, breathtaking and beautifully rousing, it’s a documentary about civil unrest unlike any other. This isn’t just what a revolution looks like – this is what it feels like. It’s chaos. It’s confusion. It’s hope. And it’s not over.
The Square is also showing in UK cinemas. Whether you prefer the big or small screen, it doesn’t matter: see this film now.