There is much about The Square that is admirable, and I don't want to interrupt myself once I've gotten going on about it, so I want to get my single biggest negative comment out of the way first. This documentary is fantastic journalism, but pretty run-of-the-mill cinema. As so many are. There is a test I run on every single "issues" doc that I come across, which consists in its entirety of asking "Would I learn just as much in just as compelling a way if this was a book on the same subject?" In the case of The Square, that answer is a clear-cut "no", but it does introduce a brand new question: "Would I learn just as much if this was a blog that I read at least weekly?" Which is an a theoretical "yes", but since director Jehane Noujaim doesn't have a blog and I concede that I probably wouldn't read it very often if she did, it's sort of immaterial. The Square exists, and not just our contemporary selves but future historians looking for firsthand documents of the fascinating ongoing period known as the Arab Spring have every reason to be grateful that it does. This is some heady, rich stuff, embedded reportage of a particularly high order of accomplishment.
The film picks up in the winter of 2011, by which point Cairo's Tahrir Square had become the gathering place for a massive protest against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian-born Noujaim and her camera arrived quickly to record as much of the activity of what was immediately recognisable as a history-making event as possible; what she could not have known any more than anybody was just how big this event would turn out to be. The revolution sparked by that protest took down not only Mubarak's regime but also, in evolved forms, the two governments (one military, one religious) that followed it, and by any reasonable definition, the events that Noujaim began recording three years ago are still quite ongoing. The nature of this project can be attested to by the fact that, after the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, 2013, Noujaim continued filming and adding new material as Egypt continued to bubble and roil with unrest, presenting a new edit of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival the following September. I do not know if the TIFF cut of the film is the same as the one picked by Netflix to be the first feature film it would distribute theatrically and online (UPDATE: it was tweaked still more); nor do I know which one was "officially" nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar. But that's for the bookkeepers. Much of what makes The Square essential, in fact, is that it's an organic process turned into cinema: a year from now, Noujaim could assemble an entirely new narrative by expanding the footage yet again, and I frankly hope that she does.
To give the overall movie shape - and perhaps this emerged only as a happy accident - Noujaim relies on three figures to be her guiding lights through the two and a half years that the film covers. One of these is Ahmed Hassan, a young democratic activist fighting out of stated humanist principles but mostly from the enthusiastic passion of youth; he seems drawn to the romantic ideal of a revolution as much as by its political possibilities, rather akin to a figure out of a '60s Godard movie. The second is Magdy Ashour, a devout Muslim and member of the controversial Muslim Brotherhood, the political/religious party that largely spearheaded the early stages of the revolution, but perhaps with an eye towards making Egypt an Islamic dictatorship, and not the beacon of Arabic democracy hoped for by other revolutionaries. The third is Khalid Abdalla, a Scotland-born actor with several English-language films to his credit who, The Square's version of things at least, became one of the main emissaries between the revolution and the Western media, owing undoubtedly to his rich facility with English and poise in front of a camera.
The film does not aim to be a psychological study, though Ahmed and Magdy especially serve as excellent conduits for Noujaim to explore the human side of the events being depicted. The gradual shift in Ahmed's perspective from sheer giddy enthusiasm to a somewhat wry understanding that realpolitik must be considered gives the movie a shape and thematic thrust it might otherwise lack; meanwhile, the shocking change in his and Magdy's faces over the period covered, a fleet 104 minutes onscreen but 30 long months in reality, is all the argument Noujaim needs to make to show that despite the optimistic bromides of phrases like "people power" and "Arab Spring", the act of revolution is hard and wearying, with the pattern of so many hopes raised and dashed and raised again as one new strongman after another tried to remodel Egypt in his image carved onto the revolutionaries' increasingly rough faces.
Perhaps I need to roll back on my initial judgment, then: this is cinematic, for in an amongst all the talking heads and title cards, Noujaim has a fine knack for using visuals to tell us exactly what's going on: a helicopter shot of the third wave of protests, in which all of Cairo seems to be a scurrying anthill of activity with every available foot of pavement occupied by one of millions of protesters, is among the most dramatic single images relating political activity that I, for one, have ever seen. And the contrast between this and the frequent intimacy of scenes taking place in the corner of a room where passionate revolutionaries debate and shout and have their small panic attacks, not caring if the camera is there or not, presents a fine, all-encompassing portrait of how history is lived and made. The film is not analytical and it is not subtle in any way, but speaking strictly as a document - a record of events fully deserving of the recording - it is a wholly essential work of non-fiction.