When does a film transcend the term “political documentary?” When it tells its story from the point of view of ordinary people, as this one does, bypassing the speechmaking of leaders and the opinions of pundits. I don’t know how director Jehane Noujaim put this remarkable film together, but the result offers a unique perspective on what has occurred in Egypt since the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011. It’s a riveting, eye-opening experience, told with empathy and immediacy.

Egyptian activists Khalid Abdalla and Ahmed Hassan
Photo Courtesy of Noujaim Films. Egyptian activists Khalid Abdalla and Ahmed Hassan

Tired of the repressive and abusive Mubarak regime, Egyptians of all kinds—Islamic and Christian, conservative and progressive—congregate in the Square, determined to be heard. When the President steps down, emotions run high as the demonstrators celebrate their victory and the promise of freedom. But almost as soon as they disburse, they begin to realize that one man’s removal doesn’t mean that freedom will necessarily follow. In the ensuing months, factionalism takes over and people who once joined together are driven apart.

Noujaim introduces us to a magnetic cast of characters—impassioned street revolutionaries, from markedly different backgrounds—and we watch events unfold over the next two years through their eyes. One of them is a 20-ish idealist who’s willing to win over converts to his cause through endless speechmaking and activism. Another is actor Khalid Abdalla, the actor who starred in such films as The Kite Runner and United 93. When he tells his father, Skyping over his computer, that he feels impelled to tell the world what the media is ignoring, his father skeptically asks if he intends to launch a television network. Yet that is exactly what Abdalla and his friends attempt to do, using the outreach of social media and YouTube. It is this energized spirit that infuses The Square.

I first became aware of Noujaim when I saw her terrific feature Startup.com in 2001. She followed it with the highly acclaimed Control Room. This ambitious feature, which weaves guerrilla filmmaking into a cogent and coherent narrative, is yet another feather in her cap.

The Square is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles, to qualify for an Academy Award. Participant Media has announced its intention to support the picture as it goes into wider release in January. I urge you to see this exceptional and insightful film, which not only enlightens and educates but demonstrates what the documentary form can achieve.