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The Square: So Close Yet So Far

[Poster for [Poster for "The Square." Image via Wikimedia Commons.]

The Square. Directed by Jehane Noujaim. Egypt/USA, 2013.

The Egyptian revolution has been hiccupping from crackdown to revolt. Meanwhile, it has collapsed from a climate of feverish utopia into violent party altercations often waged according to foreign interests. In a new documentary, The Square, Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim films the revolutionary struggle alongside her friends, representing it through the prism of Tahrir Square.

The film starts with the beginning of the revolution in January 2011 and ends a few months before the present, days after Morsi's toppling. It shows the euphoric moments of unity of Tahrir in the early days of 2011, and follows the degradation of the revolution as it becomes co-opted by the Muslim Brotherhood while the army cracks down on revolutionaries. After Morsi’s election, the struggle relapses into violence. The documentary ends with the last toppling to date, as the military takes power and the Muslim Brothers in turn become threatened, while revolutionary ideals are further alienated.

The movie follows most prominently three characters who met in Tahrir: Magdy, whose sympathies lie with the Muslim Brotherhood, which he evaluates critically; Ahmed, an uncompromisingly secular activist; and Khalid, a British-Egyptian actor, who decides to create the Mosireen (Popular Media) collective to reveal images of the revolution and prevent its co-optation by the state media.

The film streamlines the symbolic importance of Tahrir Square as a place of power and gathering. As W. J. T. Mitchell has argued, seizing an empty space is necessary to enable revolt, as it opens the possibility for revolution and frees a metaphorical space for new discourse and historical action. Similarly, empty Tahrir stands as a constant space to be re-conquered. As the film shows, the square’s openness to conversation and reorganization of communal living allowed by music and art make it utopian: it becomes a freed area where new modes of governance can be imagined. While institutions and heads of state are protected and powerful because they are shrouded in grand monuments, the empty space, a public symbol, is where a people wages its fights: there, populations are powerful because of their very vulnerability, that is, their physical presence and visibility. They reassert their existence, and this is already dissent.

In The Square, the images of deserted Tahrir, after each violent eviction of the protesters, seem to stand as a constant reminder of what the people together had achieved. Empty Tahrir seems odd and barren. It stands as a reminder of the throngs that used to camp on it. Throughout the film, the square is seen occupied by the crowds, encircled by the army, dwindling, reconquered, and, ultimately, fragmented. With every new political excess, thousands occupy the square, producing a new society simply by assembling, cohabitating, and debating there.

However, the documentary’s self-presentation as a journalistic account of the revolution is misleading. It would be necessary for the filmmaker to acknowledge the narrowness of the point of view she offers. The Square leaves out most of the crucial issues raised by the Egyptian revolution, perhaps to make it more palatable to a Western audience. The film simplifies the Egyptian uprising into a face-off between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army, leaving a disenfranchised party, for which the filmmaker clearly vouches: a group of secular-minded, Westernized (they often speak English), uncritically pro-democracy activists. While the army is demonized, the Muslim Brotherhood is looked at kindly through kind Magdy. And, of course, the pro-democracy youth is depicted heroically.

While it is undeniable that every documentary originates from a certain perspective, The Square is problematically presented as a comprehensive overview of the revolution. In fact, it tells one story among many; this story is aesthetically represented, but it is a story that oddly leaves out those that the revolution meant to reinsert within the public discourse: the people. It is obviously impossible to sum up three years of struggle in a two-hour film without simplification. But it is possible to acknowledge the shortcomings of so titanic a task, by making it clear who the film is depicting, rather than suggesting that because those filmed are Egyptians participating in the Egyptian revolution, this is a film about the true Egyptian revolution.

Indeed, the movie regrettably fails to provide context about its characters outside the square, except for prosperous British-Egyptian actor Khalid. Who the characters actually are (their professions, their outlook on life, their social origins) would be important to know, so that we can resist essentializing the causes of the revolutionaries. At the very least, this context would help us understand whose perspective we are getting. It is revealing that some of the most prominent conversations on reform in the film occur between Khalid and his father, via Skype. If the struggle means to reinsert the people in the discussion, to what degree it is really them that The Square showcases? Rather, some segments of society, those that the characters in the movie speak for, are crucially and unfortunately absent. The Square thus seems to perpetuate the régime’s exclusion of the voiceless.

In The Square, images of the revolution abound, as crucial in constructing its myth as the street fighting itself: from the anonymous hand-painted murals, to the journalistic images of the Mosireen collective, to the film itself. The crucial role of images is seen in the film as Khalid and his colleague Aida create Mosireen, a popular media collective that assembles footage filmed on the ground. Its images, some of which are in the documentary and most of which can be found on YouTube, are unforgiving: we see people running, wounded, killed. We hear from an out-of-breath Aida that people in the hospital were gassed. We see parents mourning their murdered son, or crowds clapping to Ramy Essam’s ironic tunes.

In one scene, Mosireen screens the images of Tahrir, in Tahrir itself. This aesthetic film makes one realize the very cinematic nature of a revolt fueled by images and self-consciously fabricating them, thus fabricating itself. This reminds one of the very theatrical revolt of May 1968, where the youth brought up in the cinémathèque adopted in many ways the heroic poses they had seen on the screen.

However, the film lingers, perhaps too extensively, on sensationalist images, and thus elicits a very emotional response from its viewers. I was surprised to see that I was rendered euphoric by The Square’s grandiose images of the “revolutionary struggle” just after seeing it, and only later noted its problematic inconsistencies. One such inconsistency is the remarkable absence of the many existing alternatives to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army—among which Hamdeen Sabahi is the most prominent. When faced with images of a mother crying for her martyred son, or of a disingenuous army general who affirms, upon being shown a picture of a wounded protester, “this is not an army bullet,” indignation is necessarily aroused in the viewer. The problem with such strong emotional reactions, triggered by media and cinema to their respective advantages, is that they blur other, more subtle and nuanced political commentary. We are told to shun the army and Brotherhood, and vouch for the democratic and the secular (and the Western). For a journalistic documentary, sensationalism is a very problematic aesthetic decision.

The documentary renders those it films heroic figures, particularly Ahmed. At the end of the film, he declares that he will join Magdy in a Muslim Brotherhood sit-in and risk death at his side once the Brotherhood loses power—though it is unclear if he ever does so. The very cinematic nature of modern revolt, producing images and thus self-consciously framing itself, seems (falsely, I hope) to owe its success more to the theatricality of street fights than to dedication to justice. Although the individuals in the film all seem admirable, or are filmed admirably, it is regrettable that a film such as The Square excludes the mass in favor of a few. Are we unable to be moved by a struggle without being charmed by a select few of its participants, as opposed to its goals?

Accordingly, the best scenes in the movie happen to be those filmed at Tahrir, where we see (from too far away) the most potent proposal offered by the Egyptian uprising: the heteroclite Tahrir encampment, with its sets of intense debates and playful interactions, as well as urgent concerns. It is this very direction that I would have hoped to see the movie go, in exploring the deeper debates underlying the Egyptian revolution. The filmmaker seems wide-eyed and self-consciously impressed at the critical mind of Magdy. But the depth of his involvement is reduced to habit, not actually explained or intellectualized in any way—and the same goes for all the other characters. Justice, peace, poverty are absent from the movie: they are, oddly, non-topics. The characters’ revolutionary ardor is treated superficially, through a series of grand statements and cinematic action. They are present—but why, from where they come, and what they seek, we are left unsure of.

Theoretically, studying the role of an empty and symbolic space in fomenting revolt is definitely an interesting project. In Tahrir, many produced snippets of a new society simply by assembling, cohabitating, and debating there. Although obviously the revolution existed outside Tahrir, the physical place on which revolt was symbolically waged (even if it is merely a mediatic symbol) has a crucial importance, if only because of the attempts at displaying a new society that were temporarily enabled there. In one very amusing scene, the military attempts to disable the political potency of the empty square by rendering it a botanically blooming and thus politically sterile site, by gardening on it, while Ahmed loudly disapproves.

But unfortunately, the square is too often absent from the film too: only a few minutes are devoted to concerts or conversations filmed there. Even then, we do not wander far from the main group’s tent. This perhaps suggests the fear of stumbling into any of the real issues of revolutionary Egypt, some of which ring dangerously closer to home and would leave a spectator more disturbed and less enthralled. The film obviously condemns violent crackdowns (mass violence by the army is a convenient and easy target that will seduce even the dimmest political fervors), but fails to see why revolt even occurred. The Square does not attempt to approach what can only be a round peg: the striving for justice that the revolution embodied.

Well-filmed and theatrical, The Square is powerful on so many emotional levels. It makes for a great Hollywood-style film and, I am sure, it will have great success during its theatrical release in New York and other parts of the US. But at this moment, it feels factually, and dangerously, impoverished, and screeches as it only, grandly, scratches the surface.

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