"The Square" bears witness to history in an articulate, thoughtful and intensely dramatic way. A compelling inside look at the cascading series of revolutions and counter-revolutions that have shaken Egypt since the beginning of 2011, it wouldn't exist except for the passion and determination of filmmaker Jehane Noujaim.
An accomplished documentary director whose credits include "Control Room" and "Startup.com," Noujaim was raised in Egypt and the United States, and her family lives 10 minutes from Cairo's Tahrir Square, the film's namesake. That intimate connection pushed her to keep working on "The Square," expanding its focus at a time other filmmakers would have said the case was closed.
That would have been in January of this year, just when an earlier version of "The Square" was receiving the coveted Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at Sundance.
At that point, Noujaim and her team had already been working on the film for two years. But learning that demonstrators were returning to the square to protest the enhanced powers of newly elected President Mohamed Morsi, she unhesitatingly returned to film for six more months.
That extra footage, which covers events up to Morsi's ouster by the Egyptian military in early July, changes the whole nature of the movie, giving "The Square" a richness and sense of dramatic closure it would not otherwise have had.
Because it was shot on the ground, "The Square" provides a vivid sense of the ebb and flow of events and emotions in Egypt, using interview and actuality footage to put us inside this volatile situation, enabling us to share the alternating euphoria and despair of the people Noujaim encountered and whose actions we follow.
Some of these people became celebrated, like Ramy Essam, a singer-songwriter whose protest anthems became quite popular, while others entered the square already well known. Khalid Abdalla, for instance, is a British Egyptian actor who starred in "The Kite Runner." The son and grandson of political activists, he returns to Cairo in early 2011 when the demonstrations against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak pick up steam.
If anyone epitomizes the hopes and dreams of the revolution, it's Ahmed Hassan, a young man with a working-class background and a warm, open face. He soon becomes the voice of the film, talking passionately about how "injustice, corruption, poverty and ignorance," not to mention 30 years of martial law, have made him believe that only demonstrations in the streets could make any difference.
If Hassan is the face of hope, Magdy Ashour gradually becomes the face of despair. A bearded, longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was imprisoned and tortured during Mubarak's regime, he is a staunch believer in social justice as well as an Islamist who comes to be torn by some of the power positions the Brotherhood takes.
It is one of the points of "The Square" that only in that space would these disparate people have met, interacted and come to see each other as individuals, not symbols. The film demonstrates how Tahrir functions as a touchstone, almost a sacred space, a source of power where protesters would invariably return as the situation changed. Which it frequently did.
Mubarak's resignation on Feb. 11, 2011, comes near the beginning of "The Square" and touches off waves of joy that are in some ways painful to watch. The demonstrators believe they have won, when in fact their struggles were in some ways just beginning.
In the spring of that year, people return to the square because the army, which took over after Mubarak's exit, is dragging its feet about a transition to democratic rule.
That is followed in the summer by moves by the Muslim Brotherhood, the only truly organized political party in the country, to use its presence in the square for its own specific aims and not for, in Hassan's words, "the people's demands."
With the army getting increasingly intolerant of and violent toward elements it considers forces for chaos, the pro-democracy folks are also worried by Morsi's election. Once the Brotherhood candidate takes office, his move to give himself more powers than even Mubarak had brings Egyptians back to the square in force, which leads the army to push Morsi out and take control once more.
All of this is a far cry from the rapture that greeted Mubarak's resignation, and "The Square" does a masterful job of making the entire tale both personal and authoritative. Most heartening of all, the Egyptian democrats do not seem to have lost heart.
"This is our life now, we will stay in the streets," Hassan says matter-of-factly after the army returns. "We will continue to pull rulers down."
No MPAA rating
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing at: Sundance Sunset Cinemas, West Hollywood