Jehane Noujaim’s ‘The Square’: Enthralling and Frustrating

Jehane Noujaim‘s The Square is an enthralling and frustrating documentary record of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. It tells its story by holding a steady narrative focus on a small cast of central characters and tracking the revolution’s rise and fall–so to speak–from the glory of Hosni Mubarak‘s resignation to its co-optation by a variety of counterrevolutionary forces (the military, the Muslim Brotherhood). As The Square ends after Mohamed Morsi‘s downfall in July 2013, we see Tahrir Square–the emotional epicenter of the revolution–once again serving as a focal point for the possible mustering of those forces that had brought about the first showdown with Mubarak’s regime.  The revolution, it is clear, is unfinished business.

The Square is emotionally affecting. We witness the fervor and sentiment and passion of the hundreds of thousands that gathered in Tahrir Square to bring down first, Mubarak, and then, Mohamed Morsi; we are horrified and appalled at the violence visited on them by the police, the army and a motley crew of hired thugs; we listen in on articulate and angry debate between those who come together in the revolution even as they are riven by ideology.

The Square is also a curiously decontextualized record of what has been happening in Egypt over the last three years. The close attention paid to Khalid Abdalla, Ramy Essam, Magdy, Ahmed Saleh and The Square‘s other central characters prevents both a panning-out or a further zooming in. We are told absolutely nothing about the mechanics of the revolution: the grass-roots organizing that enabled a powerful totalitarian regime to be toppled surely deserved a closer look.

Many questions thus remain unanswered. We do not know why Mubarak was brought down; we fail to understand the significance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics. Why is Magdy, the member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is so clearly conflicted about their role in the revolution, so worried about his fate if the ‘liberals’ were to come to power? And why is he the only voice of such a significant counterrevolutionary force? For that matter, who are the Muslim Brotherhood? Have they ever been in power before? How was a gathering in one urban zone able to bring down a despot? Surely, just large gatherings alone do have such revolutionary effects? Did any revolutionary activity occur outside Cairo? Egyptian history and politics are complicated; their casts of characters are large and driven by a variety of ideological and intellectual motivations; these all deserved just a little more attention.

Perhaps my complaints are misplaced; Noujaim’s worst sin might only have been to presume her viewers had done their homework. But can those who make movies about the Middle East afford to be so complacent in their presumptions? Especially when the relationship between religion and state is as complicated as it is in the Islamic world? In these times, every documentary about that region of the world is in the envious position of being able to seize upon the many teachable moments its currents events provide.

Noujaim shouldn’t have hesitated to edify us.

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