Monday 3 February 2014

On demand: "The Square"

Egypt continues to be in flux. Last year saw the UK release of Ibrahim el-Batout's drama Winter of Discontent, which described the events leading up to the failed revolution of early 2011; now we have The Square, a documentary from Jehane Noujaim, which gives the story so far an update, using footage shot in and around Cairo's Tahrir Square, the location that has become a focal point for popular resistance, and by all accounts the single most disputed patch of territory in the entire country. Noujaim depicts the changing face of this spot over the past three years. We see the tents go up as the people come out with the intention of ousting Mubarak; they're then forcibly removed by the Army once the President leaves office; the square is planted over as part of the new regime's bid to convince the protestors everything is coming up roses once again; it's then reoccupied by those same protestors once it's become clear nothing has really changed. The soldiers stand by on the sidelines, watching all this toing-and-froing with increasingly itchy trigger fingers; once they intervene, what was once a meeting place is turned, almost overnight, into an all-out warzone.

In part, the film functions as a round-up of footage that has previously only existed in disparate corners on video sharing websites, or which the nightly news couldn't show: the beatings and bulletwounds, the disfigured bodies piling up in makeshift mortuaries. Yet Noujaim seeks to square the despair with the heroism of the activists she observes. The actor Khalid Abdalla, installed as an eloquent and photogenic spokesperson for the protestors, insists "the battle is in the images - in the stories", and there's a link here with Control Room, this director's 2004 study of Al-Jazeera in the first days of the second Gulf War: again, Noujaim's overriding concern appears to be in how such images and stories are recorded and transmitted to a wider audience. She's here first as an independent observer, but increasingly as a sympathetic denmother, shepherding together the most emblematic footage arrived at by these generally young, sometimes foolhardy imagemakers, and carrying them back to the West. The difference is that, this time, these images are offered next to no framing: instead, they're offered up ragged and raw, as tattered and often bloody fragments that bring us closer both to an understanding of how tempers are fraying in these parts and to some stirring idea - growing with every body that adds itself to this swelling mass - of people power. The result seems likely to stand as the defining cinematic portrait of this particular moment in Egyptian history: a searing peek inside a crucible in which true democracy may yet be forged - or evaporate entirely.

The Square is now streaming on Netflix.

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