It’s easy to ignore what’s going on half a world away. By the time the Egyptian people were fighting to take down Mohammed Morsi earlier this summer, I had forgotten all about the 2011 revolution. Of course, hearing about it brought back memories, but even those were pretty fuzzy. The whole thing sounded important, but I was too busy dealing with less important things to understand what was going on.
I paid a lot more attention to this summer’s events, and I went into The Square hoping that it would fill the gaps in my knowledge about what had been happening over the past few years. It doesn’t really do that, because it’s mainly focused on the events of 2011 and 2013, but it does give context for what kept bringing these men and women back to Tahrir S quare. And now I feel like I have a grasp of what has happened.
That may actually be a dangerous thing, empowering the ignorant to believe they aren’t ignorant, but it doesn’t change the fact that if there is going to be a definitive document of the Egyptian revolutions, Jehane Noujaim’s The Square may well be it.
Director: Jehane Noujaim
Release: 10/25/13 (NYC, Film Forum); limited rollout to follow
The thing I remember from 2011 was that the revolution was being tweeted. It was the big thing at the time, at least in America, with everyone talking about how important it was that people could band together using hashtags and whatever. After the revolution, there were more arguments about whether or not it had really had the impact it appeared to have had, and if The Square is the definitive document, then Twitter didn’t really have a place within the revolutionary community. There are a lot of shots of computer screens, queuing up TV broadcasts or Skype calls or YouTube videos, but not once is Twitter mentioned. In fact, it seems that YouTube should have been seen as the real hero of the day, because it was captured video rather than written text that really made a difference.
The Square follows six protestors as they fight for revolution. The two most prominent (and also most interesting) are Ahmed Hassan, a serial revolutionary who is completely dedicated to his cause, and Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who nevertheless fights alongside secularists for the betterment of his country. The role that the Muslim Brotherhood played in the two revolutions weighs heavily on Ashour, and his internal struggle may be the most compelling in the film. The rest don’t really have to fight themselves; all of their battles are external. They want a new country, and they will do what they have to to get it.
The role of the camera comes up several times in the film, and the revolutionaries consider it to be the only truly honest thing. Footage can be put up of an event without apparent commentary and the rest of the world can judge for themselves what they’ve seen. Of course, it’s not actually that simple, because footage is inherently limited in scope and be manipulated in subtle ways that dramatically affect its impact (think Wikileaks’ Collateral Murder video). When some of these videos were put up, they went without context, but in The Square they are accompanied by voiceover that explains what is going on. Important details like the fact that the army was using live bullets against the protestors (something they denied) are lost without that context. It’s impossible to judge shaky-cam footage of people screaming without context. Seeing an army officer drag and beat a protestor may be enough on its own to incite outrage, but seeing if something led to that or it was solely an act of police brutality would make a big difference in the way it was received.
For the most part, the gratuitous images are kept to a relative minimum. Bullets are fired into the crowd, but people going down and screaming in agony aren’t shown. It’s primarily the aftermath, not entirely unlike 12 Years a Slave, actually, and the aftermath can be every bit as effective as the act itself. Seeing the un-official singer/songwriter of the revolution lying on the floor, with his back covered in cuts and bruises, is heart-breaking. These scenes aren’t intended to shock, though, only to document.
The film was shot using DSLRs out of necessity; all of Noujaim’s video camera equipment was been taken from her upon entering the country. But a Canon 5D Mark II, while being a pretty serious video camera, is also a still camera and looks like one. So even if she couldn’t bring the rest in, she could hold onto the DSLR. She did have access to better audio equipment, though, so it’s more of a fun fact about production than something that actually affects the experience… in all ways but one: the shifting focus.
Full-frame DLSRs allow for very shallow depth of field in an image. It’s one of the reasons that people have turned to them for video production as opposed to low-end video cameras, which shoot everything in deep focus. Less cinematic, more home-movie. And much of The Square is shot at night in the dark or inside, so there’s not a lot of light; those lens apertures were clearly pretty wide open. All of this means that the focal plane of the lens is especially small. With more control, this could be a beautiful, stylistic thing, but with a moving subject and a moving camera, this meant that the focus had to constantly be shifted, and there are no second takes. These conversations go, and the cinematographers have to capture them. Unfortunately, this means that there is quite a bit of focus shifting, which acts as a distraction from the power behind the words. Sometimes it happens a lot, while other times.
(As an aside: I think going forward that Canon’s new 70D might be the documentary camera of choice, both because its smaller sensor means that such shallow depth of field will be harder to achieve and because it’s new auto-focus system will remove the need for awkward mid-shot manual shifts while people walk and talk. Professional cinematographers say there is no place for auto-focus in film, but documentaries would beg to differ.)
Also worth noting: Certain scenes appear to have been shot with tilt-shift lenses, which was annoying, but I will admit that presenting the settings as miniatures brings with it some interesting thematic ideas.
The Square premiered in January of this year, months before the second set of protests removed Mohamed Morsi from office. The film won the Audience Award, and many would have just left it at that. But when the principle players went back to Tahrir Square, continuing to fight for what they believed in and believed they could accomplish, Noujaim returned to Egypt to capture that moment. That decision, more than anything actually presented on camera, is the reason that this film is so important. Noujaim and her team are not dispassionate observers of this revolution; they are a part of it. They braved arrests, beatings, whatever they had to in order to make the film that they believed needed to be made, and when the story continued they jumped right back in the fray. They were in a place where people were dying right in front of them (and their cameras), but they kept going. That desire to make as complete a document as possible is why The Square is as impressive as it is, and why people need to see it.
It’s a biased film, though, which is why the ignorance I brought up earlier is so important to recognize. It is a secular film and is sympathetic to the secular ideals, having been put together in such a way that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood look like real-life villains. There are plenty of arguments to be made that such is the reality of Egypt today, but I expect that somewhere in the hundreds of hours of footage that must have been shot for this film, there are scenes where other members of the Muslim Brotherhood don’t seem quite so uncaring. Ashour is not the only good person in that group, but seeing The Square it would be hard to make that case. It’s hard not to sympathize with the revolutionaries, but I have no doubt a Muslim Brotherhood documentary could paint everyone else as the villains and themselves as the heroes.
In the grand scheme of the things, this is less a problem and more something to be aware of. The Square demands thought and consideration. Once it ends, the memories of those events in 2011 and 2013 are forever changed, and that can’t be the end of it. Even if it’s just getting the word out about the film, this is something that can make a difference. Will it? Hard to say, but the dedication proves that it’s not just going to go away.
“History is written by the winners,” the old saying goes, and the next years and decades in Egypt will put that to the test. After the 2011 revolution, it could be argued that many of these people lost, but it’s still their story that’s being told. And it’s the one that’s going to resonate. I forgot about the events of 2011 once, and it won’t happen again. I am not going to forget The Square, and everything that happens in Egypt from now will be colored by what it showed me.