Wednesday 1 April 2020

Movie Review: The Square (2013)

A street-level documentary about the Arab Spring in Egypt, The Square explores the combustible mixture of enthusiasm, chaos and crackdown as the people take to the streets en masse demanding regime change.

Starting in January 2011, crowds start to gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square, demanding the fall of the military regime of President Hosni Mubarak. After 30 years of emergency rule, the yearning for democracy and better social conditions reaches a boiling point. The demonstrators are peaceful, and include a mixture of liberals, academics, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Christians from all walks of life, genders and social classes.

Ahmed is an idealistic non-religious young man, Khalid Abdalla is a well-known actor (best known for starring in The Kite Runner), Magdy is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramy is a musician and Aida is a liberal. They descend onto the square along with thousands of others, and under the unyielding pressure of the masses Mubarak resigns, but only to be replaced by other generals. Then the Brotherhood strikes a deal with the military for early elections, causing rifts within the ranks of the demonstrators, while bursts of brutal violence and attacks by police and military forces cause casualties.

A prime example of be careful what you wish for, The Square chronicles societal upheaval as a country politically convulses. Director Jehane Noujaim captures the Egyptian edition of the popular uprisings that swept through the Arab world in the early 2010s. She finds a populace fully convinced the current regime has to be upended, but with no readiness or plan for what comes next.

And so after Mubarak's resignation a power vacuum takes hold, the status quo of military governance deemed unacceptable and the Muslim Brotherhood, the only semi-organized political entity in the country, a seemingly worse second choice for the liberals, Christians and educated elites of the country. Not surprisingly, the violence gets worse as unity fragments.

As a documentary The Square focuses on the in-the-crowd experience rather than any overall context. With the articulate and thoughtful Ahmed as primary guide, the film spends most of its time with the teeming masses in the square. Music, food, tents, discussions, slogans and bursts of national pride create an improvised social structure to galvanize the will of the people. The perspective sometimes shifts to the apartments of the main characters, with Khalid Abdalla's video conversations with his US-based father providing an interesting alternative dynamic.

And when things turn ugly, the film does not look away. Violence arrives in the form of tear gas, live bullets and military vehicles ramming into the crowds, and the consequences are agonzing, often fueling anger and a redoubling of determination.

With morale flowing and ebbing with fervour and disillusionment, several waves of protestors take over Tahrir Square over the course of two years. By 2013, alternatives have been tested, energy exhausted, and the square completes the circle.

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