Television coverage of the political upheavals in Egypt over the past two years, especially the protests in Tahrir Square, was almost always defined by the reporters' distance from events. Even correspondents on the ground surrounded by chaos sometimes exuded a sense of voyeurism, or -- even worse -- a self-congratulatory aura of being in danger, the "Look at how tough I am" pride you see in all those fools in rain slickers standing upright in hurricane-force winds. The reporting from Egypt was valuable and the danger real, of course, but the coverage wasn't considered "foreign news" for nothing, even when referred to with the more enlightened "international news" rubric.
Jehane Noujaim's galvanizing documentary The Square offers a rare, first-hand account, which goes beyond presenting graphic footage of violence in Tahrir Square (although it does that too). With great immediacy and complexity, the film follows several activists trying to shape Egypt's future, even as that future slips and slides in new directions.
The Square begins with protesters working to overthrow the long-time dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, and the first version of the film, shown at Sundance last year, ended with the election of the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi. For the final version, opening now, Noujaim returned to Egypt and followed the same activists as they faced the immense disappointment of Morsi himself assuming dictatorial powers. The reversal was more shocking to some than others, because Noujaim carefully chose the people she would follow, each with a distinct persona and political perspective.
Her major players are Khalid Abdalla, (an actor in The Kite Runner), who returns to Egypt
after years of having lived in London. He is the most media-savvy figure we
see, sophisticated about how to send a global message; maybe it's no
coincidence that he is also the most skeptical about political promises.
Ahmed Hassan, in his 20's, is the charismatic image of youthful idealism and determination. But the most unusual figure, by American standards, is Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a father in his 40's who was tortured under Mubarak and who faces the most intense personal decision when his candidate, Morsi, turns out to be more villain than hero. It's rare to see someone who believes in a religious-based government presented in such human terms; he could so easily have been demonized.
These characters know each other, sometimes fighting side by side, sometimes arguing, as they try to maneuver into a future with no clear landmarks or easy answers. The film ends when Morsi is ousted from office and his supporters attacked in the square, but the film's characters are left with some harsh yet essential questions. Was his election an improvement, however compromised, or more of the same?
The focus on a few real-life characters gives The Square a conventional shape. This is not the kind of film you go to for dazzling artistic innovation. But Noujaim, an Egyptian-American, has a valuable perspective and a rigorous intellect. As she did in Control Room, focusing on Al-Jazeera's coverage of the U.S. war in Iraq, in The Square she provides a smart, eye-opening view of a subject that homogeneous American news outlets often handle with blithe simplicity.