The Square details the recent Egyptian Revolution with moderate success. Director Jehane Noujaim examines the conflict through several particularly intriguing revolutionaries, including one from the Muslim Brotherhood who struggles with the morality of his organization’s pursuits. The film explores each major event from the initial protests in 2011 until this past summer from the perspective of these main characters. By focusing on each character, without pulling back to see the conflict more generally and historically, it feels a bit chaotic.
This method of tackling the subject prevents the viewer from developing a broad understanding of the situation by favoring the specific experience of several people. Noujaim’s choice not to contextualize the history occurring on screen is frustrating. By never separating from the immersion with these particular characters, the experience is puzzling at times for those who haven’t been following the conflict closely (myself included). Tasha Robinson explained this aspect of the film brilliantly, highlighting that rather than what is generally expected, Noujaim provides “…a vivid, impressionistic portrait of the social scene in Tahir Square, and how street protests gave workaday Egyptians a feeling of empowerment and ebullience that a succession of oppressive, disingenuous leaders couldn’t shake.” Ultimately, unlike Tasha, this approach blocked my ability to engage with the material although more informed viewers might find this approach invigorating.
The Square is not the must-see documentary one may have hoped for, but it’s certainly worth a watch. It’s always valuable to develop a specific human context for historical events that we grow detached from because of geographic distance. The Square is playing at the Brattle Theater for one week only and launching via Netflix on 1/17. If you need the theatrical environment to keep focus in a less than thrilling documentary, go to the Brattle, otherwise check this out on Netflix.
Given the Academy’s history of choosing politically relevant documentaries, I'm not surprised that this was nominated for Best Documentary Feature this morning.