Jehane Noujaim's documentary The Square has been short-listed for the Oscar, is now available on Netflix, and recently won her an Directors' Guild Award. But it has still not been released or even screened at a festival here.
There have been a number of recent reviews, which in one way or another have raised the question of the film's viewpoint and its portrayal of a deeply divided, deeply confusing reality.
At the New Republic, Eric Trager argues that Egypt's protesters also "bear responsibility for the mess that followed."
But one year later—and only 15 minutes after Morsi’s victory in the 100-minute film’s run-time—the activists are suddenly willing to accept the military’s return to power. Morsi’s dictatorial maneuvers and theocratic ambitions, combined with his use of Muslim Brotherhood thugs to torture and kill protesters, has incited a mass movement against him, and the film’s protagonists eagerly take to the streets. “Do you think the Army will act in the same way it did?” Ahmed asks rhetorically. He clearly doesn’t think so, because he is once again caught up in the enthusiasm of yet another mass protest, and thus convinced that “Now the power is in the hands of the people.” It’s as if the film’s first hour and ten minutes never happened. It’s as if the previous military regime hadn’t shot Ahmed in the head.
Max Fischer takes up and expands on criticism of the movie, focussing on what he sees as the unfair portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The viewer receives the strong impression that the Brotherhood did not arrive in force until more than six months after Mubarak's fall, a flood of unwelcome Islamist men taking over the square, although in fact Brotherhood members were crucially present during the very first weeks of the uprising. […] The Brotherhood's role in the revolution itself is not just excised, it is rewritten into something much more nefarious. In the first weeks of military rule, the Brotherhood entered into talks with the new government about forming a transitional government. But the film makes the bizarre choice to instead describe this as cutting "secret deals with the military," the first of many intimations of conspiracy that the Brotherhood and the military are clandestine partners in subjugating the people of Egypt.
The Square is undoubtedly skeptical of the Brotherhood (although one of its most compelling characters is a member of the group), but Fischer misses the fact that the Brotherhood and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces did collude, more or less immediately after the 18 day uprising, to put a stop to revolutionary momentum by pushing through the March 2011 referendum, which was sold as both pro-Islam and pro-stability, and inaugurated the disastrous, ambiguous road map under SCAF. The Brotherhood knew it would do well in elections, and it viewed the protests and clashes in the Fall of 2011 as destabilizing to its plans -- its leadership forbid its members from participating and expressed precious little sympathy when demonstrators were beaten, tortured and killed by the police and army.
Evan Hill also had a nice in-depth look at the film, with some interesting details about when and how it was filmed and edited. Like the reviews posted above, he views the filmmaker’s romanticization of its revolutionary characters and its adherence to their point of view as problematic:
Though Noujaim re-edited the film in 2013, after its festival debut, to account for the coup against Morsi, she addresses the killing of his supporters only in a few brief YouTube clips, followed by a title card stating that "hundreds" died. The film concludes with Hassan, who expresses hope that the uprising has birthed "a society of consciousness" that no government can again repress. It gives little indication that matters are about to get worse. By aligning itself with Hassan and his fellow secular activists, "The Square" — which is fast becoming one the most influential accounts of the uprising outside of Egypt — takes on much of their idealistic and naive attitude, at the expense, some would argue, of the truth.
Yasmine El Rashidi, on the other hand, writes a generally glowing review of the film, and identifies with the filmmaker (an old friend) and her protagonists:
The choice of footage in the final cut was meticulous; intended not to offer a nuanced or comprehensive portrait of a political situation, but rather to trace how the thinking of a select group of young activists evolved as events played out. […] Some of the best parts of the film involve Abdalla and his family, relations that seem to capture the generational divide that so defined the uprising. These moments suggest a more complex reality than the film generally depicts— the split between young, educated, English-speaking activists, and a larger portion of the population with very different backgrounds and daily concerns. […] These moments, short, fleeting, possibly overlooked in the larger story of the film, are the crux of many of the struggles we have faced and still face today; a minority of exceedingly righteous idealists, somewhat privileged, fighting a growing majority who increasingly opt for stability over the more ambitious political goals to which the revolution first aspired.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with the The Square sticking to the particular point of view of a few Tahrir activists. Nor am I convinced that it should be charged with romanticizing Tahrir. There is a deadly romance to revolutionary moments (young people who are risking their lives need to feel and act and speak in idealistic and theatrical and romantic ways), and it was very much part of the culture and atmosphere of the square. But I wish that the film-maker had pushed her subjects much harder to articulate their point of view, and to evaluate their actions and strategies. It's great to have the immediacy of those protests and clashes three years ago, but it would also be great to have some of the perspective that comes, precisely, from the passage of time. What were secular activists thinking on June 30 and, even more, on August 14? The last half hour of the film is where things fall apart for me, into a vague final fuzzy uplift that seems out of sync with events and gives little insight. One does not necessarily have to choose between celebrating what happened in Tahrir (it is emblazoned in my memory as one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed) and trying to figure out why and how it failed -- including the failures of the revolutionary forces and the so-called liberal political parties.
What did “we” learn in Tahrir? (perhaps, to start, how difficult it is to define that "we"?) Rashidi admits she can’t quite say. Unfortunately it seems that the military and the police are the ones who have had the steepest learning curve. They were genuinely caught by surprise by the uprising of 2011 but within two and a half years they were capable of turning mass street politics to their complete advantage.
Meanwhile, The Square has yet to be released in Egypt. The film-makers say they were denied permission to screen in; the Censor’s office claims that it never received an official request; a new application is pending. The breadth and depth of the debate that the film has inspired makes it all the more clear that it should be shown here.