A filmmaker’s review of “The Square”
Last week, the list actors and films nominated for the Academy Awards was released. As usual, I skimmed down the list past the usual characters until my eyes caught a flash of the word “documentary” on the screen. I had already seen one of the documentary features nominated (Dirty Wars), and ever since Sundance 2013, I had been waiting for a date circled on my calendar, January 17, to finally watch The Square on Netflix.
I love documentary film, and the art of the documentary is what drew me to filmmaking in the first place. As someone with a several humble years of experience in the trade, I wanted to sit down and write a bit about these two films from the perspective of a filmmaker, starting with The Square.
Harnessing the power of the medium
What The Square does exceptionally well is harness the power of the medium. I have to give praise to Jehane Jounaim her crew for the cinematography and intimacy of the film. This is one of the most immersive documentaries I have watched. This is what makes it such a beautiful film. Video has the ability to take the viewer inside a moment, and live it, so to speak. The camera crew for The Square took visibly extraordinary risks to capture moments that conveyed the reality of what Egyptians have experienced in Tahrir over the past three years.
I found my eyes hot with tears at a multiple points during the film. The story of Egypt’s journey as a country and people since the beginning of 2011 is perhaps one of the most gripping I have ever witnessed during my life. The camera crew of The Square‘s production team took extraordinary risks to immerse the viewer in Egypt’s revolution. They put me in the middle of the square, and it was overwhelming.
There are scenes where I sat waiting for a stray bullet or tear gas canister to send the lens of the camera crashing into the pavement. In 2010 I visited Iyad Burnat at his home in Palestine. After hearing stories of protestors in Bil’in killed by gas canisters and “rubber” bullets, my perspective on “non-lethal” ammunition changed. I knew that even if the Egyptian police weren’t firing live bullets (which they did), protestors could still be killed by their munitions.
The film also harnesses characters well (cast listed here). Rather than cut to talking heads to pontificate about the revolution, the film follows a group of revolutionaries that includes one member of the Muslim Brotherhood and one woman. Their cameras put you inside the square, and inside the lives and conversations amongst them and their families as they navigate through Egypt’s ever changing state of civil society. You are able to see their personal struggles close up, and it is hard not to feel a connection to them by the end of the film.
Here are some of my favorite moments from the film. I love these because of the raw emotion they captured.
Mubarak steps down
This is a moment in the film that we all know is coming, yet unless you were in Tahrir on February 11, 2011, you haven’t felt it in this way. I watched the elation of multitudes gathered in the square, and the weeping of individuals unable to control the outpouring of years worth of emotion. After viewing the film, this moment is one I feel that I understand just a little bit better.
Ramy Essam sings “Taty Taty” in Tahrir
This is perhaps one of the most amazing moments I have witnessed captured by a documentary. As security forces, draped in riot gear, surround Tahrir, Ramy Essam leads a crowd of protestors in lyrics that expose the hypocrisy of military rule to the very face of the oppressor. The group stands defiant, proud, and brave. I love how this scene was edited. For me, it was a beautiful moment of courage.
Mina Daniel’s Mother after Maspero massacre
At this point in the film, and Egypt’s story, tragedy still plagues the country. Police and army brutality is constantly rising. The moment the sacrifice and heartbreak of Egyptians hit me hard was after the Maspero massacre. The heartfelt words spoken by Mina Daniel’s mother at his memorial made me want to book a ticket to Cairo just to say, “I am with you. Mina is not forgotten.” This scene was so powerful because it was intimate. If you don’t connect with this family during the film, you need to check your pulse.
Lastly, what I love about this film is that it didn’t give up. Producing and editing a documentary is a painful process. You have to take a huge experience, communicate it within a relatively small time window, and retain the emotion and integrity of the story. The makers of The Square went back to Egypt to continue filming and produce a second edit of the film because they thought it was important to include as much of the constantly developing story as possible. I can’t tell you the kind of perseverance that takes.
From a production standpoint, I have few criticisms of the film. From a journalistic standpoint, I hold some concerns shared by others in the community of journalists covering the Arab world.
The most circulated criticism piece that I have found so far comes from Max Fisher at the Washington Post. The thesis and headline of his post is “The Square is a beautiful documentary. But its politics are dangerous.” Fisher argues that, “The Brotherhood’s role in the revolution itself is not just excised, it is rewritten into something much more nefarious.” However, the best critical review I have read comes from Evan Hill at Al Jazeera: “The Egypt outside ‘The Square’.” Hill states, “Some of the same young Egyptians who protested alongside Noujaim’s activists now criticize what they see as the film’s rose-tinted bias and oversimplification of an ongoing revolutionary moment that is far from pure or straightforward.”
This is essentially where The Square‘s weakness lies, and some would argue, failure.
As the film progressed, I found myself concerned about the way the Muslim Brotherhood was portrayed, waiting for moments to balance out the narrative that favors the secular revolutionaries. Sharing sentiments from other observers of Egypt, Fisher relays this from an interview, “They cited the degree to which the film had become a Western darling: Sympathy for liberal or secular activists is after all high in the West, while concern for the Muslim Brotherhood is low.”
The filmmakers do work to bring in the Brotherhood perspective with Magdy Ashour, who is portrayed in a positive and sympathetic light. He is a great, complex character that displays the middle ground between the dichotomy portrayed in the West as military vs Brotherhood. The truth, as pointed out by Issam el-Amrani on The Arabist, is that many Egyptians possess this middle ground. However, we are never taken inside the Muslim Brotherhood organization the same way that we are taken into the community of the revolutionaries. The brutality that Muslim Brotherhood members endured at the hands of the military after Morsi’s ouster is acknowledged, but not deeply covered in the way the revolutionary movement was.
In the end, I desired greater coverage of the deadly crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood/anti-coup sit-in in July 2013, and a stronger voice for other groups during the early 2011 protests. My concerns were somewhat assuaged by a scene at the end of the film where the main revolutionary protagonist Ahmed talks on the phone with Magdy, after the June 30 ouster of Morsi. The two share a moment of unity, affirmation of brotherhood, and common desire for Egypt to attain true freedom and internal peace. Through this scene and narration, the filmmakers do make an effort to keep the narrative framed as a struggle of people vs power. However, it is almost too little, too late.
Subjectivity and documentary film
The Square brings up the topic of objectivity vs. subjectivity in journalistic media. I ascribe to a view that believes journalism and subjectivity are not necessarily mutually exclusive. None of us are truly objective, and I think that acknowledging our own subjectivity is what is important, to a degree. That said, a responsibility to be accurate to the story remains. Overwhelmingly, the debate over The Square that many are having is one of accuracy.
In The Square, the problem is not that it heavily covers the revolutionary side, but that it lacks a sufficient counterbalance. We need to hear what Ahmed thinks of the Muslim Brotherhood. We need to hear his perspective, regardless of what he thinks, because his voice is important. Ahmed also embodies what many young, liberal revolutionaries have felt over the past three years. The problem arises when there is not a direct voice of equal weight from the side he is addressing.
As for not moving much outside Tahrir, I would argue that the film doesn’t need to. The focus is clearly stated in the title. There’s nothing wrong with focusing heavily on what happened in Tahrir Square. When filmmakers tell a story, focus is essential in order to achieve a clear and digestible storyline. I don’t believe the filmmakers set out to produce a comprehensive film on the Egyptian revolution. They set out to tell the unique story of what happened inside Tahrir Square during Egypt’s revolution. I even think it’s fine to have a film that focuses only on the more liberal revolutionary perspective, as long as the film is branded as such.
The Square flirts with this line a bit. For an individual that has followed Egypt relatively closely, they know enough context to sift through information presented. But those unfamiliar with the Egypt’s story may finish the film with some inaccurate and unfair notions about the Muslim Brotherhood constituency, not to mention a flawed understanding of Egypt’s recent history. For those of us in the West, there is a danger of confirming liberal, Western biases about our view of the Egyptian revolution and the July 3rd military coup.
Editing is a tough and tiring process. In Hill’s article, he cites Noujaim on the editing process, “The filmmakers had to edit down from more than 1,500 hours of footage, she said, and the ‘news and the politics’ of the revolution were best left to journalists.” I have to disagree with Noujaim on this. The film is telling personal stories, but it is also telling a story of political and historical significance. The mistake here is that, in this case, she is a journalist. Certain stories we take on as filmmakers carry a responsibility to amplify the story to the world as accurately as possible.
In my opinion, the director and editors had two options. The first is to expand and deepen areas of focus in the film in a way that strives for historical accuracy as much as it does for an effective story. The second is to tell a strictly revolutionary point of view, clearly stating the intention and purpose as such, so that viewers understand it is not an endeavor to tackle the whole picture, only a slice of it.
While not perfect, The Square is beautiful and the best attempt to tell the story of Egypt’s revolution to date. This is an important film, and a powerful one. Despite shortcomings, I have an immense amount of admiration and respect for the team that told this story. And you deserve to see it. Documentaries like this do not come around often. Understand the film for what it is and use it as a jumping off point to connect further with Egypt and their struggle for “bread, dignity, and social justice.” The violence and division on the streets in Egypt today, the anniversary of the revolution, further underscore the struggle to translate a revolution into sustainable political progress.