With the immediacy of a flash grenade, “The Square” captures a historical moment by inhabiting a political organism — the ongoing Egyptian Revolution, filmed for two years in and around Tahrir Square in a fashion that captures the passion and defiance of a movement from the inside. Unwieldy pic was barely completed in time for its Sundance premiere, but helmer Jehane Noujaim lends her film a kinetic energy that aptly reflects its subject, as well as an almost lyrical quality that could help it cross over to arthouse theatrical play.
While news coverage of the 2011 protests in Cairo tended to characterize the uprising as a teeming mass of inarticulate hysteria, Noujaim finds the humanity in an event that was grassroots in its origins, 30 years in the making, and plagued by multiple crises and crescendos.
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“The bastard is making us wait,” says Khalid Abdall, referring to longtime despot Hosni Mubarak’s expected resignation, once the Tahrir protests had made their point. Abdalla, an Egyptian actor with fluent English, is just one of a number of very articulate young people Noujaim uses to reflect the elation that meets the fall of Mubarak; the dismay-turned-outrage over the Egyptian Army’s betrayal of the movement; the resistance to a premature election; and the resignation among the film’s mostly secular activists when the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood arises victorious.
“The Square” is journalism, but Noujaim’s agenda is greater than mere reportage. Those who know the Tahrir Square events from the evening news perceive it as a riotous altercation between an old regime and an angry population, but there were — and are — real people amid the pandemonium, and in making them paramount, the film provides a perspective unattainable by journalists who parachute in and out of crisis situations.
The aesthetic of “The Square,” which seeks emotional clarity in chaos, arises from the lensing of a number of shooters who were on the ground and on balconies surrounding Tahrir, providing an aerial survey of the action below. It also results from the first-rate editing of Mohamed El Manasterly, Christopher de la Torre and Pierre Haberer. Aside from a few inter-titles and formal interviews, the docu is largely verite, and the result is a narration-free immersion in political upheaval. There is never any pretense that viewers are being presented with anything more than a moment, but it’s a moment ripe with meaning and implications for the future.
Tech credits are first-rate. Aside from a few strains of Philip Glass, who seems to have taken over the audio portion of documentaries everywhere, the film boasts some affecting music by Jonas Colstrup.