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Three Protesters, One 'Square': Film Goes Inside Egypt's Revolution

Three Protesters, One 'Square': Film Goes Inside Egypt's Revolution

A revolution is a bit like a writing a mystery novel. It's hard to start but even harder to come up with a satisfying ending.

They're still working on that in Egypt. Three years after the toppling of dictator Hosni Mubarak — the crowning moment of the Arab Spring — the army's running the country again; the elected president, Mohammed Morsi, has been arrested and charged with treason; the Muslim Brotherhood has been banned; and Tahrir Square's secular protesters are getting arrested. All this in the name of order and country.

You witness how we got to this point in The Square, an engrossing, beautifully shot documentary by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim, who grew up a few minutes from Tahrir Square in central Cairo.

Working with a brave local crew from 2011 to 2013, she tells the story of the many demonstrations in the square — first against Mubarak, then against the military regime that followed, then against the authoritarian Morsi, then against the military regime that replaced him.

If, like me, you watched all this on TV, the ongoing turmoil began to feel like a distant, abstract blur. Noujaim takes us inside this history by centering on three protesters, each from a different background.

There's fiery-sweet Ahmed Hassan, a young man who's been working since he was 8; there's camera-savvy Khalid Abdalla, the British-Egyptian actor who starred in The Kite Runner and whose good English makes him a key link to Western media; and there's the film's most fascinating and ambivalent character, Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who was tortured by Mubarak's thugs but is no fanatic — he gets along with Hassan and Abdalla.

Through them, Noujaim captures the ongoing drama that's unfolded in Tahrir Square, a saga filled with idealism, euphoria, disillusionment and danger — Hassan even takes army buckshot to the head.

The Square is not a 360-degree portrait of recent Egyptian history. We don't get to know the hard-liners in the Muslim Brotherhood — and there are many of them — who would die, and are dying, to create an Islamic state.

Nor do we hear from the millions of ordinary people who are now sick of all the demos in Tahrir Square and want life to get back to normal. Noujaim is consciously partial — and clearly on the secularists' side.

Yet the movie is no less gripping or revealing for that. As we're plunged into scenes of both ecstasy and violence, it's impossible not to be moved by the heroism of those who turned up in Tahrir Square realizing this just might get them killed. I've never done anything remotely so brave in pursuit of my own freedom.

At the same time, we see the limits of Abdalla and Hassan's secular, left-leaning activism. The qualities it takes to topple a regime — including fearless passion and uncompromising single-mindedness — aren't the more cold-blooded ones it takes to forge and enact a political agenda.

Abdalla may say that the demonstrators "know instinctually" what The People want, but power nearly always winds up in the hands of more practical, opportunistic sorts like the Muslim Brotherhood or the army. They don't mind getting their hands dirty. The military folks whom Noujaim interviews clearly see most protesters as naive suckers.

None of this turns The Square into a despairing or even downbeat movie. For all the setbacks, Noujaim and her heroes know that very few revolutions are actually velvet. They're drawn-out and messy, and how could it be otherwise?

Watching Egypt on the news here in the U.S., it's easy to wonder why things are still so bad after three whole years. It's worth remembering that it took 16 years from the Boston Tea Party to the election of George Washington.

This may be another way of saying that Noujaim's film is less a final reckoning than an exciting bulletin from the front lines of an unfinished revolution. I rarely say this about a movie, but I can't wait to see the sequel.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.