“The Square” Resists the Usual Characters

A new documentary on the Egyptian revolution makes the uprising, rather than the uprising’s participants, its centerpiece.

New Media Fellows 2013

By Jina Moore

October 29, 2013

Also published by the Columbia Journalism Review

Over the years, I’ve had occasion to spend enough time with people who get reported about to hear this complaint: “We’re not characters. We’re people.” It stems, I think, from a misunderstanding: For many journalists, writing for character is fundamentally a sign of respect, but sources see it as dramatizing their reality. It’s a real, and important, fissure between journalism jargon and the rest of the world.

So the lack of character development in the new documentary The Square—a nevertheless gripping, irresistible 104 minutes—sticks out as noteworthy. That’s not to say there aren’t interesting people in Jehane Noujaim’s film, which opened in New York on Friday and reaches Los Angeles on November 1. The usual documentary trick—following a person as something compelling about them changes over time—isn’t the journey in this film, about Egypt’s political changes.

Instead, The Square does something more interesting: It treats Egypt’s revolution itself as the main character, revealed by the activists who return so many times to Tahrir Square, the Cairo park-turned-protest camp that became symbol of the Arab Spring. Ahmed Hassan, a young man in his mid-20s, narrates the story. It begins with the breathy generalizations of myth. “The entire nation united at once to battle poverty, corruption, and ignorance,” he says. “There was no such thing as a Muslim or a Christian; we were all one hand.” The rhetoric feels suspiciously utopian, but by the end of the film, Noujaim and the people in her film have done more than just tell. They have shown us, over the course of a journey, what these ideas really mean.

Initially, Hassan fears that the revolution will be stolen by political opportunists, and slowly, the fear seems realized. The protesters successfully oust Hosni Mubarak, the now 85-year ruler accused of corruption and torture, but then what? The military overplays its legitimacy as a protector of the people, and after a second stint in the Square, its leadership plans for elections as a kind of concession to the pro-democracy protesters.

Those doing the protesting don’t see it that way, however. Khalid Abdalla, a British-Egyptian who leaves his life as an actor to edit citizen videos for YouTube broadcast and to serve as spokesman to the international media, argues vehemently that the election is a false choice between two status quo rivals. He argues about the pros and cons of the political machinations with his father, over Skype, and his mother, in a kitchen presumably back in England. After exhausting intellectual appeals, she tells her son, “I’m so fucking scared of the moment [the military] says ‘You people, enough. Back to law and order.’” In a film that manages to be beautifully detailed without losing its audience, this is a moment of universality: a young idealist with dreams of a more just political order, an older realist with empirically supported fears about the rupture that order requires.

The elder Abdalla, the film leads us to believe, was right: The Muslim Brotherhood wins the election; things get tense and turn nasty, and the film leads ups to the conclusion that the Brotherhood is a false revolutionary father. Hassan confronts a member of the Brotherhood in the street, accusing the group of collaborating with the military and stealing the revolution. “So what?” the man concedes. “It is our right”—the right of power to exert itself.

The most interesting person in the film is Magdy Ashour, a middle-aged member of the Muslim Brotherhood who shows the cameras the scars he bears from electrocution under Mubarak’s regime. He’s an enthusiastic revolutionary at first, but when the Brotherhood moves in on the moment, he feels he has to support them. (His wife seems to share this expectation. Of the time he spent in the streets in Tahrir’s earliest days, she asks, “What did it get him?”) As things get tense, he must decide which side he is on.

But this film isn’t about any of these people. It’s about a moment, one that lasted longer than audiences outside Egypt might at first understand. Much of Noujaim’s footage was shot by the people in the film, a fact the film sensibly refuses to make a point of focus, except for crucial moments of violence committed against camera-wielders. Noujaim herself has a brilliant instinct for how much detail to include, and a refreshing faith in her audience to stick with and care about the messiness and meaning of politics in a foreign place.

This is hardly a foolproof story strategy, and Noujaim (or her public relations staff) seems to know this. The character profiles include far more information about the film’s key players than the film itself and promise deeper relationships than ever develop on screen. This makes sense; producers are notoriously risk-averse, and there’s nothing but risk in Noujaim’s approach, even if she’s a seasoned director (The Control Room, Rafea).

But the risk pays off. The film is visually beautiful, wonderfully edited, and masterfully mixed (no small feat given the variations in audio quality). Simply nothing feels like it conveys what really happened in Egypt better.

Jina Moore is a New Media Fellow of the International Reporting Project.