A revolution is a perpetually evolving entity, a constant presence in the lives of its participants. And yet, it’s rarely seen nor heard of once the white noise provided by visiting media conglomerates dissipates and they move on to new regions and with new entreaties to the bored mass populace of the West, offering up their weapons of mass distraction. Who now cares for Mohamed Bouazizi or in fact remembers who he is? The only difference with Thích Quảng Đức is that people forgot more rapidly which is why, as documents go, we now look to indigenous interpretations of a forceful historical imperative that can no longer be dreamt back towards an eventual status quo.
The arrogant and patronising claim that a film can communicate the experience of a still existing and kinetic revolution is bogus and false. Jehane Noujaim’s The Square (2013) very much refutes this lie via an intense characterisation of six protesters in Tahrir Square from the start of the Egyptian uprising in January 2011 to the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi as president in July 2013. The central focus of this disparate group are three individuals: Ahmed Hassan, Magdy Ashour and Khalid Abdalla. By following this trio over nearly four years, Noujaim evokes the vibrations and rhythm of a revolution that may one day perhaps be held to be the decisive moment of the whole era of the contemporary history of the region and possibly the world.
Ahmed is from Shobra, a low income district of Cairo, and was put through school by his illiterate mother and is indicative of the anger of Egyptian youth. This is superbly counterbalanced by Magdy, a Muslim Brotherhood member who listens and talks passionately with his new secular comrades about the constantly shifting revolution which is their reality. The triumvirate is completed by Khalid Abdalla, an English public school educated Cambridge graduate born in the UK to Egyptian parents, who has appeared in films such as Paul Greengrass’ United 93, Green Zone and The Kite Runner. It’s very much a joint enterprise of characters and events that force the film towards a future that is in constant flux with itself. We watch the events unfold, our concern for these revolutionaries foremost.
We see the three men change physically, emotionally and spiritually, especially within the relationship between Ahmed and Magdy. Putting aside their differences, the duo develop a loving relationship that has been forged on the intellectual and physical battlefields of an Egypt that is in constant flux. A narrative of the major events of the four years is introduced by the ever-evolving murals of Ammar Abo Bakr, reminiscent of Diego Rivera and the revolutions of sixty years past. This ultimately teaches us that the idea of a permanent revolution needs a permanent cinema. Noujaim’s film screened at Sundance in January to wide critical acclaim but, of course, events on the ground kept moving so she went back and continued shooting and editing to include the fall of Morsi. The Square was later premièred again in Toronto at the end of last year, where it was picked up by Netflix and received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary.
The Square could become a constantly evolving piece that will go on representing Egypt’s political landscape. Perhaps that old adage of cinema not ending but just stopping will be refuted by a grand opus that’s never truly complete. There is no real finality in either art nor revolution – just a constant struggle between the future and the past. Within Noujaim’s doc we’re granted an insight that will forever be a constant; an ongoing struggle from each day forward. Lenin famously said that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. Here, we’re able to watch the years become weeks; to become aware of what is not yet written and how the past has never really passed.