“We were all present; we were one hand”
As the initial sit-in at Tahrir Square taught the Egyptian people the power of protest and revolution in securing freedoms they only dreamed they could have, Jehane Noujaim’s Al-Midan [The Square] shares it on an international scale. I’ll admit I thought everything was okay after Hosni Mubarak fled the Presidential Palace. I knew there was still strife, that the Muslim Brotherhood took control through an election process yet still didn’t prove better than the regime they replaced, but I never fathomed how much worse it got nor the fight raging on. This isn’t a documentary about victory; it’s the story of a nation fighting for its rights as human citizens above politics, religion, and blood. This is about mankind’s refusal to be ruled by tyranny and fear and its ability to stand as one towards that goal.
With footage spanning the protest’s first phase (Mubarak’s stepping down on February 11, 2011), second (removing the military from power with free elections in Winter 2011/2012), and third (millions joining forces in the square to demand President Mohamed Morsi’s resignation on June 30, 2013), we see the action on the ground from three influential and ever-evolving revolutionaries and their friends. There’s Ahmed Hassan, a young man who was there from the start trying to educate newcomers and recruit larger numbers for the series of sit-ins staged; Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood with the wherewithal to see there was more at stake than a Constitution based on religion; and English-born actor (The Kite Runner) Khalid Abdalla who arrived in Cairo from abroad and refuses to leave until their goals are met.
You can add Aida Elkashef, Pierre Seyoufr, singer Ramy Essam, and many more to the list of people seen—including two military officers inferring they facilitated the revolution while also painting many citizens on the ground as reactionaries going too far—but the aforementioned main trio is the core to everything happening. Khalid grows into being the face of the revolution by speaking on US talk shows via satellite and editing raw footage for YouTube consumption. Magdy becomes one of the more intriguing pieces, changing allegiances multiple times in an attempt to reconcile his love for country (friends) and religion (duty) against each other. And Ahmed proves the heart of their ongoing saga as someone who’s refused to back down despite the bloodshed, personal injury, and the conflict transitioning from revolution to civil war.
Similar to another Oscar nominee, Karama Has No Walls (Documentary Short), we’re shown uncensored carnage in all its brutality. Whether the aftermath of a beating taken by Kamy, surgeons in the street operating on shot protestors, or Egyptian army tanks running down civilians at full speed, The Square puts us next to these heroic martyrs who’ve finally had enough of the oppression. We hear them talk about the victory over Mubarak and lament about leaving Tahrir Square too soon after by buying into the military’s lies. We see them ignore authority to return months later and demand elections, feeding into the Muslim Brotherhood’s compassion to help before realizing they were usurping the protest for their own gain. And we empathize with their plight once an even worse dictator is voted into power.
But while a lot of these details can be found in countless news reports online, Noujaim gives us something unique in her footage’s ability to show the human aspect of this war. The film’s at its best when pitting Ahmed and Magdy together to debate their differing sides’ goals, sometimes agreeing and others miles away. It’s crazy to see the juxtaposition of early days’ laughter with Ramy working security at the square to ensure there are no weapons against later days of tear gas, rocks, bullets, death, and destruction. Three major battles take place against three different opponents and the Egyptian people have still not won. Watching the numbers steadily increase, however, shows their victory or death mentality. It’s no wonder the documentary was screened for protestors staging their own revolution in Kiev this past week.
There’s something about the twenty-first century’s social media/digital age wherein we have access to those fighting first-hand that powers us to rally support and uncover the lies corrupt politicians and media outlets disseminate without remorse. It’s tough watching human life erased—looking into the dead eyes of someone who minutes before had energy and excitement—and yet so very necessary in order to understand the price paid for rights Americans often take for granted. Ahmed’s one-in-a-thousand protestor transforms into a de facto leader, Khalid’s selfless patriotism for ethnicity above upbringing instills pride and reverie, and countless others rising to the occasion show how the fight reaches beyond today. Everything onscreen is one step forward on a road to justice and equality only a few Egyptians thought possible in early 2011. Now an entire world stands at their back.