Friday, March 7, 2014

The Square

Two years after they began, the Egyptian revolutionary uprisings of early 2011 would have been an easy, ripe subject for a documentary film; the riveting images of crowds running and tear gas and fists raised, demands made and met, a dictator of three decades crumbling before the empowered masses.

On the other hand, the politics of Egypt’s last several years would provide a vexing topic; the numerous competing protagonists, the bureaucratic complexity, the subtle historical influences of every twist and turn, the moral compromises made by every participant.

The Oscar-nominated film ‘The Square,’ which premiered at Sundance a year ago and on Netflix last month, basks in a celebration of the secular-minded activists who became the dominant voice of the 2011 uprisings. Chief among them is Ahmed Hassan, a wiry, boyish speechmaker who exults in his movement’s triumphs and despairs when things turn sour. Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, who partially grew up in Egypt, lingers on his impassioned pleas. “When we were united we brought down the dictator,” he tells a crowd at Tahrir Square at one point. “How do we succeed now? By uniting once again.”

As a chronicle of political enthusiasm, ‘The Square’ succeeds gorgeously. But it falls prey to much of the tunnel vision that marked the activists’ own transition from stardom to irrelevance. The activists tried to speak for a highly religious public, failing to understand the appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and more fundamentalist Islamists like the Salafi movement. By not engaging with these groups, they paved the way for the military elite, also a primarily secular group, to divide and conquer. Noujaim herself identifies strongly with the secular, and mostly wealthy revolutionary protagonists — like her, they speak English and identify with American cultural norms — and it’s tempting to see the film’s blind spots as her own discomforts with the religious realities of her country.

Read the rest at The Revealer

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