By: Henry J. Fromage (A Toast) –
Remember the Arab Spring? That’s been going well, eh? Well, it’s not over just because a bunch of countries got putative governmental upgrades on the shoulders of popular uprisings. The hard part is the rebuilding, and as Egypt for one has found, ensuring that the deep, dirty root system that sustained the hardwood dictatorships before they were cut down is uprooted and replaced. The Square is about that process.
Damn, what a year for documentaries 2013 was. The Square joined the already sterling Oscar field of Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, 20 Feet from Stardom, and The Act of Killing (represent!), and there were plenty more deserving films besides who didn’t make the cut. The Square might be better than any of them (The Act of Killing being that quite strong ‘might’).
From a filmmaking perspective, it’s as good as it gets. The quality of imagery that this film got in the midst of the Tahrir Square crackdowns and riots is stunning. The opening is as cinematic a way to lay down the facts as you’d see from any Hollywood drama.
What really counts here, though, is the subject material, and The Square lays out in staggering , often brutal detail the abuses of Mubarak, the military junta that replaced him, and the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood mouthpiece that followed them. It shows the messy process that transitioning from autocracy to democracy always is, particularly in a Muslim majority country.
Filmmaker Jehane Noujaim makes several strong choices here. Foremost is starting the film from the first person perspective of young activist Ahmed Hassan. It grounds the film, makes it personal for the viewer, and when he gets injured later, you’re inhuman if your heart isn’t in your mouth. He diversifies with other perspectives later (including, impressively, the military spokesperson, and a conflicted Muslim Brotherhood member whose dilemma is both fascinating and heartbreaking, particularly when the reprisals start- yes, as in real life, there’s no definite “good guys”), but starting that way is a stroke of genius.
His other bold choice was to postpone release of his film when the events of the Summer of 2013 added one more wrinkle to Egypt’s political situation. It doesn’t provide a Hollywood ending to the film, because real life doesn’t have those, but it s a rousing ending nonetheless, leavening Egypt’s despair and oppression with a necessary and welcome pinch of hope.
The Square is a gripping portrait of a democracy struggling to put paid the promises of revolution- and find its feet as a true representative of its people.
Take a Drink: for every chant
Take a Drink: for every military attack
Take a Drink: whenever the Muslim Brotherhood does something shady
Take a Drink: whenever the military lies (you can probably guess when)
Do a Shot: whenever we see Mubarek’s sour mug
Do a Shot: when one oppressive regime becomes another