Jehane Noujaim, The Square, 2013, HD video, color, sound, 104 minutes. Khalid Abdalla and Ahmed Hassan.


IN THE TEN MONTHS since it won the audience award at Sundance, Jehane Noujaim’s documentary The Square, about the political upheavals that have been convulsing through Cairo for nearly three years now, has proved almost as unpredictable and unwieldy as its subject. The version that screened in Park City, Utah, began with the protests on Tahrir Square, which were initially organized, at the outset of 2011, as a response to police brutality and the case of Khaled Saeed, a young man who had been beaten to death six months earlier by the Egyptian security services in Alexandria, and then escalated so intently that the country’s autocratic president, Hosni Mubarak, resigned after thirty years in power.

The version of The Square that opens at Film Forum on Friday, which won a second audience award in Toronto, begins exactly the same way but ends in a very different place. The Sundance edition, retroactively defined as an unfinished cut, concluded in the summer of 2012, with the rise of Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi of the long-suffering Muslim Brotherhood. Now the film ends a year later, in the summer of 2013, with Morsi’s arrest by the Egyptian military. Not yet folded into the drama of an already highly dramatic film are the shocking eruptions of violence that followed, burned through the summer, and left thousands dead and thousands more tortured and traumatized.

This raises one obvious question: Will Noujaim’s documentary ever really be done? It also hints at several others: What does a director do with a subject that refuses to settle down? How do audiences respond to a story that is clearly still searching for an ending? Does the need to convey a coherent narrative mean that any film about the tumult in Egypt is bound to betray the realities on the ground? At what point does a filmmaker cede the complexity of a situation to the clarity of an argument? And what do we do if the clarity of that argument cuts through the complexity of that situation, and still finds meaning elusive and the moral to the story false?

The Square is Noujaim’s fifth feature-length documentary. As the director of Startup.com (2001), about the boom and bust of young Internet ventures, and Control Room (2004), about Al Jazeera, the military, and media bias in relation to the war in Iraq, she is no stranger to difficult subjects that demand ambiguity and ambivalence on screen. As an Egyptian-American filmmaker, she is also quite palpably torn by the path her country has taken. It should be said from the start that The Square is complicated, argumentative, and incongruously beautiful to behold, thanks to the astonishing camerawork of Mohammad Hamdy, Noujaim’s director of photography. Hamdy’s tilt-shift style gives the film a striking and peculiar sense of depth, accentuating Noujaim’s obvious affection for the architecture and urban texture of Cairo while continually refocusing our attention on her three main characters: Ahmed, the working-class secular rebel; Khalid, the incredulous expat, also a relatively famous actor; and Magdy, conflicted member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is emboldened by independent thinking but in the end shuts it down.

Ahmed, Khalid, and Magdy—men in their twenties, thirties, and forties, respectively—become friends on Tahrir. They disagree but they can sustain a dialogue, trading ideas about rights and possible structures for a new regime built on justice, dignity, and respect. That is the wonder and promise of a revolution that turns out to be elusive, possibly fictive, and by now a cruel mirage. As revolution descends into counterrevolution, corruption, and coup d’etat, the rapport among Noujaim’s characters falls apart. Ahmed tells Magdy he loves him but hates the Muslim Brotherhood. From one scene to the next, Ahmed lurches from precocious young man and natural-born leader to a tantrum-throwing teenager who, not unjustifiably, goes in for some rock throwing and, almost immediately, gets struck in the head by a rubber bullet.

Magdy, meanwhile, absorbs all manner of Tahrir-style truth-out critique. Weakly, he offers up his scars in return, his body marked by years of arrest, abuse, and imprisonment under the Mubarak regime. The liberal camp is unconvinced, his son swings over to the hard-core religious side, and he is set adrift in emotional, intellectually uncertain seas. Throughout, Khalid tries to keep his hopes for a better future alive despite a barrage of bad news and crass politicking by Morsi, the military, and the Muslim Brothers. At one point, he shakes his head in disbelief, noting that a standing president has just called for the slaughter of his own people on television. Khalid’s father, a former dissident, Skypes in from London to tell him, sagely: “The rich don’t want freedom because they already have it,” a trenchant reminder of the economic roots of the Arab world’s current malaise.

The Square threads a number of possible arguments about sacrifice and civil rights through the tangle of recent events in Egypt, ultimately settling on the somewhat bland notion that what the revolution needs now is a conscience. True enough, but as for conviction, it is tentative at best. A raft of other characters, most of them women, fall by the wayside—including the tough-talking human rights lawyer Ragia Omran and the actress Aida El-Kashef, one of the tender young founders of the consequential video collective Mosireen—like material left over for another film (or for when the time comes, once again but always too late, to wrestle with the gender question).

As early as the fall of 2011, in the New York Review of Books, the writers Hussein Agha and Robert Malley predicted many of the sorrows that have followed the so-called Arab spring:

Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.

In a way, one watches The Square hoping Noujaim’s characters will escape that fate, while already knowing they won’t.

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

Jehane Noujaim’s The Square opens on October 25 at Film Forum in New York.