Daily | NYFF 2013 | Jehane Noujaim’s THE SQUARE

The Square

Ahmed Hassan in ‘The Square’

“Billed as the ‘story behind the headlines,’ The Square, by Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim, presents a gritty and at times visceral documentary look at the revolution in Egypt from ground level,” wrote CBC’s Evan Mitsui last month. “Using hand-held amateur footage gathered in Tahrir Square the film, which won the People’s Choice Documentary Award following its Canadian debut at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), as well as an audience choice award at this year’s Sundance film festival, follows a group of Egyptians through sit-ins, protests and riots since the outset of the revolution two years ago. One of the central characters, British-Egyptian actor Khalid Abdalla, who starred in the blockbuster films The Kite Runner and United 93, left his life in London to join the revolution in the country of his birth.” And Mitsui interviews him.

Nick Schager for Slant: “Gaining its power from its proximity to the chaotic events in and around its central location, The Square evokes—in aerial shots of the Tahrir Square’s masses calling for Mubarak’s ouster, and later kneeling and praying in unison—the vital role that such geographic centers play in bringing citizens together, as well as in fostering political and cultural upheaval and transformation. Likewise, director Noujaim’s handheld footage amid clashing protestors and military, which at one point includes the cameraman suffering taser assaults himself, has a visceral intensity that captures the lethal brutality that its subjects, and millions of others, potentially faced during these demonstrations.”

“There’s plenty of distressing and shockingly timely footage (some shot as recently as August) that is rarely-to-never aired by American news outlets,” writes Aaron Hillis in the Voice, “but it doesn’t take a bullet or tear-gas pellet whizzing by the camera to frame the film as a provocative indictment of media negligence, and perhaps the limp inadequacy of the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

Noujaim (Control Room, “takes on a complex subject with thousands of participants by visiting and revisiting four different people throughout,” notes Howard Feinstein at Filmmaker. Besides Abdalla, there’s “charismatic young” Ahmed Hassan, Magdy Ashour, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Rami Essam, “the ‘singer of the revolution,’ who plays guitar night and day for the exhausted folks occupying the square. The most brutal sequence in the film is one in which Essam recounts his arrest and capture by soldiers.”

“Sure, many other good documentaries are as emotionally, politically, narratively and spiritually powerful as The Square,” grants Jovana Jankovic at In Review Online, “but this film’s most important contribution to both documentary filmmaking and the historical record is its exposure of stunning images of the Egyptian revolution, all of which convey a sobering power that goes beyond words.”

For Time Out New York‘s Keith Uhlich, “the film provides a valuable on-the-ground glimpse into the lofty dreams and sobering realities of the Arab Spring.” For Jose Solís, dispatching to the Film Experience, “what might be the film’s most shattering revelation” is “that in the end it’s always the people fighting each other.” Bilge Ebiri for Vulture: “Alternately despairing and hopeful, the film’s uncertain finale—after all, the violence in Egypt continues to this day—just adds to its poignancy.”

The Square screens just once—tonight!—at the New York Film Festival.

Update, 10/18: In the New York Times, Noujaim tells John Anderson that she’s finally satisfied, that the cut opening in New York theaters on October 25 is the truly final cut. Anderson takes a look at the changes Noujaim’s made over the past two years.

Updates, 10/23: Noujaim’s “resolve to remain in and around Tahrir for the past two and a half years has yielded an incomparable and invaluable document, as well as a superlative narrative of sustained struggle,” writes Eric Hynes in Reverse Shot. “Few films have better or more accurately articulated the nuances, the wild pendulous swinging, the potential and pitfalls of revolution.”

Time Out New York‘s David Fear: “The Square offers more than just pictures of a revolution; it lets you into the mind-set of those fighting for their future, and that makes all the difference.”

“Egypt’s change is painfully gradual,” writes Michelle Orange in the Voice, “and the activists have recalibrated for a decades-long fight. For now, Ahmed and the others find solace in their country’s reignited spirit, and in the streets, where the kids are playing a new game they call ‘Protest.'”

Steve Macfarlane talks with Noujaim and and executive producer Karim Amer for Slant.

Updates, 10/24: In his “Docutopia” column at Sundance Now, Anthony Kaufman explains why “The Square functions more like a dramatic film with a rising arc, narrative twists, and a central figure who loses his innocence along the way…. [H]aving the patience to let a subject take shape can pay off in innumerable ways for the nonfiction storyteller. Consider long-in-the-making landmark docs such as Harlan Country USA or Hoop Dreams, in which the filmmakers spent years with their subjects, living and growing with them, and watching events unfold in unexpected and revealing ways. Documentaries such as these are like great novels, offering enough drama and depth to express the arc of human lives. In The Square, that arc encompasses the political awakening of young Ahmed, as well as of his country.”

For Mike D’Angelo, writing at the AV Club, “The Square feels incomplete, like the first part of a much longer effort. It’s hard to blame Noujaim for presenting it to the public now, but the decision to do so is primarily political, not artistic.”

“This isn’t a nuanced historical film, waiting to hand-hold outsiders through two years of regime-changing protests, military ousters, and bloody crackdowns,” writes Tasha Robinson at the Dissolve. “What it is instead is a vivid, impressionistic portrait of the social scene in Tahrir Square, and how street protests gave workaday Egyptians a feeling of empowerment and ebullience that a succession of oppressive, disingenuous leaders couldn’t shake. The Square is a chaotic film, zipping from protest to protest and watershed to watershed, and losing track of its participants for long stretches, only to find them again, without comment. But it’s an appropriate document for a chaotic period.”

Noujaim and Amer are guests on Filmwax Radio, while Noujaim and Khalid Abdalla are guests on the Leonard Lopate Show.

Updates, 10/25: “Even though The Square depicts widely covered recent events, it still feels like a revelation,” writes A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “This is partly because of the immediacy of Ms. Noujaim’s approach, which often puts the viewer in the midst of chaos as it unfolds. You may know what is coming—the clearing of Tahrir by the army after Mr. Mubarak’s departure; the tensions before Mr. Morsi’s election and the violence against the Coptic Christian minority afterward; the anti-Morsi demonstrations leading up to his ouster this past summer—but you witness it all in a state of suspense and agitation.”

“Today it seems that the verite style she employs is almost de rigeur for filmmakers covering this sort of material, a pervasive fashion,” writes Godfrey Cheshire at “And while its esthetic appeal is obvious, so are its limits. Without any commentary or expert analysis to help clarify matters, it’s often hard to grasp some elements and nuances of a complex and ever-shifting political situation. But in conveying the immediacy and some of the representative personalities of that situation, The Square is vivid and memorable. No doubt most viewers will leave convinced that, while Egypt’s troubles may continue for years, the genie of liberty unloosed in 2011 will never be returned to the bottle.”

“Does the need to convey a coherent narrative mean that any film about the tumult in Egypt is bound to betray the realities on the ground?” asks Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at Artforum. “The Square threads a number of possible arguments about sacrifice and civil rights through the tangle of recent events in Egypt, ultimately settling on the somewhat bland notion that what the revolution needs now is a conscience. True enough, but as for conviction, it is tentative at best.”

At Hammer to Nail, Nelson Kim has a good long talk with Noujaim.

Update, 11/1: “Tactile is the overused word that seems right for The Square,” writes David D’Arcy at Artinfo. “Humane is another. You feel a bond that comes from more than close proximity as the crowd warms to its own improbable confidence as citizens exercise their own freedom, for a while. You also witness the utter vulnerability of young people (and some old) stranded in open urban emptiness as military vehicles race through. We see that from rooftops as if it’s a video game of armored cars chasing figures who don’t know where to run. We also see the grim aftereffects, on the pavement and in the arms of relatives.”

Update, 12/25:The Square still hasn’t been screened in Cairo,” notes Ursula Lindsey in a post for the London Review of Books. “It was scheduled to play at a local film festival but pulled at the last minute; the Censor’s Office has not approved the movie’s general release. It’s not hard to see why. The scenes of revolutionary fervour and army and police brutality are at odds with the prevailing version of events here, in which generals are saviors and all protesters suspects.”

Updates, 3/30:The Square takes a very complex political situation over three years’ of turmoil, rupture, and stasis, and parses it into a clear story, marked with crisis points and moments of decision, all of which are punctuated by mass demonstrations,” writes Michael Sicinski for Cinema Scope. “The narrative woven by the film, furthermore, is one of modernist social formations rather than an ‘internet revolution’ fomented by 21st-century technologies and interfaces. The kind of emphasis on social media one sees again and again in, for example, accounts of Iran’s Green Revolution, is notably absent in The Square. This is an interesting choice from the director of both (2001), a documentary about the early days of the Internet, and especially Control Room (2004), the film that quite ably displayed the global impact of Al Jazeera.”

Michael Guillén interviews Noujaim and Karim Amer, while Daniel Walber talks with Noujaim for

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