I’m going to start this review by voicing the reason parts of The Square were difficult to understand. It’s a niggle that I hope is fixed before release. The subtitles in this film are constantly in white, with no black outline on the letters themselves. This means that whenever the screen is white underneath the subtitles, there is literally no way to know what anyone is saying unless you speak the same languages as they do. This was annoying, and in a documentary means you can miss crucial details.
The Square is a compulsory documentary for anyone with even the slightest interest in the Arab Spring, protest movements, civil rights, Egypt, the police, the army… it covers so many bases, but primarily it talks about the protest that primarily takes place in and around Tahir Square in Cairo.
The protest begins in 2011, and is focused on removing President Mubarak from power, to improve the lives of everyone who isn’t considerably moneyed – which, funnily enough, is the majority of any given population. “The rich don’t want freedom,” says actor/activist Khalid Abdalla’s father. “They are already free.” The protesters, however, succeed in forcing Mubarak to step down, then celebrate, shortly before departing Tahir Square, job accomplished.
The problem stems from the fact that many of his party members remained in power, it was at that moment that the joint forces of Christian and Muslim populations of Cairo as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood realised that they had made a grave mistake by giving up their ground before the fight was won. So begins the true story of The Square, and it’s a harrowing one, to say the least.
What I love about it, and what does sometimes counteract what would otherwise be the overwhelming darkness of the piece, is the moments in which people say things with such grace and quiet, unassuming power. Things so simple and passionately spoken, they help drive home the faith and emotion behind these protests, just as much as the shots of chanting crowds and police brutality. “Tahir is a symbolic land,” says one interviewee. “If you have control of it, it pulls people to you.”
There’s one narrative thread I found the most striking, the tale of a young revolutionary who, as the documentary progresses, is transformed from a bright-eyed, happy individual with a song in his heart and a dream in his head to a battle-worn, angry, cynical activist who is fighting to ensure his dream survives. It’s incredibly heartbreaking to see someone go through so much, but his ascent from someone taking part like everyone else to an orator and representative of the cause is impressive.
He’s not alone, of course – Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla features heavily, and his three-generation strong background in political activism serves him well. The main filmmaker for the revolutionary cause, he is constantly fighting to ensure that the world is aware of what is going on in Egypt, regardless of the cost. This is the most powerful aspect of The Square – its focus on telling the story of the revolution through the people taking part, the individuals who do not share the same views or emotions when it comes to the grave situation taking place in Cairo.
Recently, I took a look at Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, and the difference between the two is in the numbers. Here, you won’t see a few activists hauled into court because of a small-scale demonstration in a famous location. Here, you’ll see (literally) a vehicle ram into a crowd of activists, floods of police sweeping down the street after joining forces with the army to finally turn on the people they promised to protect. This is as dark as political filmmaking gets, and I warn those who are weak of stomach, some of the images you’ll encounter are graphic and extremely upsetting.
But there’s a point to it, and the fact it isn’t gratuitous is what makes these scenes such an important part of The Square. To see the damage caused to someone’s body by a police beating, to see the face of someone hit by the aforementioned vehicle – these are important images because it rams home that it isn’t all screaming and waving signs around – the protests in Egypt were extremely dangerous for everyone involved. At one point, one of the activists appears having fled a hospital, claiming that it was being flooded with nerve gas, despite the staff and patients still being inside. The Muppets this ain’t.
That the documentary crew involved, led by director Jehane Noujaim, managed to not only film all of this but get the film out of Egypt, is impressive in itself. There’s at least one moment I can think of where one of the camera operators is actually grabbed by a policeman and told that they’re not going to be arrested while the policeman attempts to interfere with the camera. It’s tense, and I commend them for taking the risks required to bring this film into existence.
Documentaries like these are the reason why journalism needs to extend beyond written reportage, which can only do so much. The sights and sounds of protest are visceral, heavy, in The Square, and the story of the struggle is communicated so much more effectively than short updates on the Six O’Clock news. Watch it.
The Square is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 9th January.